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The Creative Director’s Playbook For Audio Advertising

Jan 15, 2021

This is a podcast interview with Sam Crowther of A Million Ads transcribed with AI. The questions we ask are in bold headers. Sam has always been at the forefront of audio advertising and creativity, at its very start when Ricky Gervais returned to Xfm in 2001. He shared a voice booth with his producer Karl Pilkington. After a chat over tea in the shared kitchen, he decided to edit the links of this new show to cd’s for key agencies as promotion. Demand soon grew that he eventually loaded MP3’s on to an FTP site, a full 3 years before Apple added podcast support to iTunes. This eventually became the world biggest podcast but it started simply from a belief great audio content should be on-demand not just linear. Today, he is the Executive Creative Director for A Million Ads. A Million Ads delivers dynamic creative and personalization for digital media. They are the new standard for data-driven creative, enabling brands to engage people with the right content at any given moment. They make this possible by combining technology with innovation in the creative process to deliver relevant and personalized digital audio and video ads on-the-fly.


How the Fundamentals of Creative Marketing Have Not Changed and One Way They Have


Sam: Sam postures that the fundamentals haven’t radically changed. Here is his argument, “I grew up with the phrase, ‘The Medium is the Message’ by Marshall McLuhan, which is from a very famous book called Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and a message that anybody who studied marketing kind of got rammed down their throat. It stands true because he talked about the global village, and I think that’s what we’re seeing today, the idea that you can talk to somebody on the other side of the globe as if they are next to you in a small village, which is true. The fundamentals haven’t changed. We’re still human beings and human beings evolved over a very, very long period, and it’s only been recently that we have digital media. Digital media has been the radical change in the last few years, so everything has become digitized. That means that as marketers, you can’t forget the fundamentals of the human being and the psychology of influencing people that have always been available. The delivery of digital means that you can be more specific to people and you can be more personalized, and you know exactly who those people are on a per person basis.


The Proven Processes That A Creative Director Uses to Craft Audio Ads


Sam: We asked Sam this question because he has been at the forefront of audio advertising since the time of radio and has stayed at the forefront through all mediums since then. Let’s see what he has to say, “Well, the first thing we do is the briefing process. So a client comes to us who wants to communicate in the audio space. We need to understand more about the product and the brand, as in what is the core of what they want to do. Hence, the briefing process is the starting point. I would say, from that brief, we then try and work out how we can communicate that mission with audio. It’s about the simplicity of the message because you can’t put you can’t convey a complex message very easily in audio. It needs to be quite a simple one. So we try to break it down to a very, very simple key human fact and come up with an idea that might persuade a listener to take note of that message that the brand wants to share. So the moment that we get that idea, then that as a creative, you start to think about the voices in your head. So you imagine someone saying that script. You end up writing a script like you would do for a computer game or whatever it is you imagine that character speaking to the person is. So then you start casting, so you need to have the right characters. You might want to express values within music. Obviously, I mean, ads quite often have music, and they’re very, very powerful because of it. We then listen to lots of music and we try to find the music that you know fits with that ad, that communication or that brand. If they don’t have their own sonic branding, then it’s the recording. So once we’ve got that script ready, it’s about recording a voice, editing it, loading it into our system and setting it up. 


Unique Effects Podcast Ads Are Having On The Market


Sam: Podcasting is fantastic. I mean podcasting has been around for a very long time, actually. I mean, I remember in a previous life I worked for Commercial Radio Group and I actually work for a company on the same floor as a booming studio. Mycreative studio was off XFM. There was a London radio station on an indie music station, and it had somebody called Ricky Gervais, who was the head originally on X FM. I used to share a voice booth with a producer called Karl Pilkington, and Karl was the producer for Ricky as he came back on the show. I remember Carl saying to me in the kitchen, Sam, you have to listen to this talent named Ricky, he’s just so funny. He is hilarious. And I said to my girlfriend, who is now my wife, you have to listen to this show. It’s Saturday morning and we were driving to a function and it was literally from the first few minutes one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. It was just hilarious. And that was the first podcast radio show, and I went back on Monday and I said, I’ve gotta edit this down and send it out to some ad agencies and say, look. this is amazing. This guy is so funny. And so I burnt five CDs to five of the biggest media buyers in the UK and sent it off in the next week. I received requests for, like 20 CDs the week after that, about 100 on It after and was like, God, we can’t keep burning CDs. This is not good for the environment or anything. So I actually asked the tech team if we have access to the FTP site. I remember those FTP sites and I loaded an mp3 on, but it was a laborious process. But then we sent a link out and said,lLook, you can download this show because so many people were interested that it was listened to by the Guardian. They recorded those podcasts and that was the birth of one of the first successful podcasts by Ricky Gervais. Now, the reason I told you that kind of long winded story is because podcasting is the fundamental of audio on demand and that was just on a radio station in London. That isn’t broad enough that at a particular time on a Saturday morning, someone like Ricky Gervais deserves a much bigger audience and the reason why we love it and why I was sitting in that car not getting out and going do my shopping because it was so engaging. It was so intimate. It was so funny and that’s what we love, and that’s what podcasting is all about. So when you talk about the impact of podcast ads now, you know, almost 20 years later yes, it’s come. They went quiet and then it came back. But this is the fundamental reason that we love content on demand. Audio that entertains us wows us when you watch some of these true crimes. Or listen to the true crime podcasts. That intimacy, personal trustworthiness is what podcast ads do. And radio always had an element of that anyway. But they have a huge impact because they are so trustworthy and intimate. Now you could do it at scale. So you’ve got Spotify. You’ve got programmatic inventory going into them. Suddenly you can actually love this medium, but you can actually reach it on a massive scale. And you could do it in a personalized way. 


The Triggers and Trend of Podcast Consumer’s Reactions to Personalized Advertising


Sam: Yeah, that’s the ultimate one, isn’t it? There are only a few publishers that even have first name data and have even used it. What we talk about when we talk about personalization, we talk about two things, and we talk about human attention because these two areas are the things that drive human attention. So the first one is actually things that are a threat to us. So if you’re out on the street, you hear a loud bang. Your brain immediately looks to the source of that sound and says, Is that a gunshot or is it a car backfiring? That’s the number one thing that drives attention is what we perceive is a threat to us. The second thing is personal relevance. So When you talk about names, you’re talking about Cherry and Broadbent, a very famous psychologist that talked about the cocktail party effect. And they talked about this occasion where you’re in a busy, noisy cocktail party.Someone mentions your name in a conversation next to you, and you get drawn toit, even though you weren’t listening to it originally on what that proved is something called selective attention. So this is what our brains are brilliant at. That they’ve taken enormous amounts of information, but then they filter and decide if it’s important or not. So, actually, your name is the tip of the iceberg of what is personally relevant to you. So it’s your name. It could be where you came from, where you grew up, the town that you grew up, the football team that you support. The music that you may be listened to when you were ateenager. That or the one the track that you had as your first dance at a wedding. Those air, incredibly personal sounds that will always trigger that personal relevance. Recall. So, yes, everyone hearing their name in an ad will drive people nuts. But using music that you love from an era that you love, you might not think consciously about it, but it will make you feel closer to that brand because of that personal relevance. So you’re not gonna hear lots of ads with your name in, But you might suddenly notice that you like advertising generally because it’s fitting who you are, because that is data that we know about you so we can put messages that are relevant to the city that you’re in. You’re so you only hear those music that you love. You know, it’s because of the music that you play on different times a day, different weeks,you know, your mood reflecting that and the third thing. Sorry. I talked about personal relevance. And the third thing is, is contextual relevance contextual relevance. It operates in a similar way, but on a much shorter term turnaround, as in it’s raining outside. I’m gonna need to get an umbrella, youknow? So it’s the things that change on a day to day basis. And if you’re going on a road on the radio, say, Oh, we’ve got problems on the motorway or the freeway, then you’re gonna go. Did they just say there were problems?Because I’ve got to go there today. So it’s slightly different than personal relevance. But all of this staff, all of everything I’ve just talked about about personal contextual relevance is what we then inform the creative that you hear so it could take into account where you are. The weather, the device.You’re listening on, how you’re connected, Internet, Internet, or what have youThe time of day, the day of week, all of that stuff and then the personal stuff is the stuff that the publishers might have about you. And that could be yourage, your gender, the last tracks that you are listening to, you know, the slightly more personal stuff. But as guardians of that data, they will not be throwing around willy nilly. Sort of like, You know what I mean? They’re gonna be quite precious about it because it’s very powerful stuff. Particularly your name? Yeah. I mean, there could be some really cool applications.


How Personalization in Advertising Can Overcome The Perception of Being A Gimmick


Sam: And also there’s there’s two ways. I mean, do we take in information both subconsciously or consciously? The cocktail party example proved that they actually have taken information subconsciously. And then it says, Hold on. This Is a priority. This is your name. Now there’s two ways to be creative. I could write a scenario with your name Matt because I could write it in, as in, Hey, Matt. I know your chord, Matt. So I’m going to use it, and I’m going to engage you by saying I know this about you and use it now. That’s conscious. Very conscious. I know this. I’m telling you, I’m engaging you. But what about subconscious use? So what if we had a scenario where I was writing an ad where there were two characters and one character was called Sam and one of them is called Matt? You see what I mean? It’s still your name, but then you’re like, hold on while they were using the other name you wouldn’t know that they’re using it because of this. Imagine if that voice that represented Matt was actually, you know, like a famous person that you admired. But all you don’t realize is actually that voice over, we got them to record 500 names and it took about 25 minutes to do that. So actually we could reach maybe in terms of how old you are, I don’t know exactly. But, you know, 30 people in their thirties or forties or have you could reach about 65-70% of a Western name population with the top 1,500 names. So you have a long haul with names. So what you do is you reach hundreds of thousands of Matts across America. Part of that is how do you really rise above the noise, right? Especially with audio. Then one of the bigger challenges is that you may be walking. You may be driving the call to action at the end of it and it’s a much bigger ask, because I know some of the best audio ads that I listened to. They make me want to get my phone out, use my notepad on the iPhone and write it down to check it out later, right? So how do you create ads in this space and collateral that people want to engage with and remember to the point where it becomes worth the investment that these people then actually take you up on the offer.


Creating Audio Advertisements That Prompt Action No Matter Where the Listener Is


Sam: Yeah, well, the big thing with call to action is that most of what people are listening through, like you said, is a phone bond at home. It could be a smart speaker of some sort. Or if not, it could be your laptop. And they’re all smart speakers, essentially, Onda. The power of that means that you can essentially not get your phone out to make a note that you could actually talk to potentially. And that’s what is being trialed at the moment. Um, so talk to me or explain to Maura about this service or this product or this game or whatever it is. If you feel engaged, you don’t have to speak. It is the quickest and simplest and easiest way of then saving information or asking for more information, or show me that video on the phone or what have you. It can be.And that’s what’s interesting because I think in the next few years that’s gonna be the thing that really, really sort of drives it. Not that everyone needs a call to action. In that sense, there’s still a really important to building brands through sort of emotional positioning and all of that sort of stuff. You know, triggering a conversation is a fascinating way to think about.So if you think about ads that mawr engaging because they understand you as a person, they’re only putting the products that are more relevant to you on the message that engages you better because it understands you.  I think creatives naturally exposed themselves to a lot of culture, I think, to become a creative person. Generally, you engage with film and music and podcasts, and you’re a sponge for culture. And so not that you could do everything all the time, but you already have a very good reference. Most Creative people have very good references for culture on DSO. That kind of how you end up being like that, because that’s a real skill within itself.And it’s the same with all sorts of creators in, different in different media. And you try and consciously do that. But then there are huge things like a pandemic that have a huge effect. So you think about the pandemic of this year on the effect that that has had on the type of marketing that has gone out of Onda. A lot of the scripts that I’ve had to write, you know this year have had to reflect that because there’s a new reality to people being at home,people engaging in different ways with the media. They’re listening to a lot of digital audio, which is fantastic for us, but we need to reference that in the way that we may talk about these products and services. So there are things that are big and they’re unavoidable. And then there’s other things, little nuances and we try to build teams that are, um, as diverse as Andi,inclusive as possible because there’s no point in me trying to write around young women’s issues. I’m even though I could look up those issues. It’s Not the same as loving them. And so it’s very important that any creative team you have a really good mixture off all sorts of people within that.


The Trends Audio Advertisements Are Headed Toward That Creative Directors Have To Follow


Sam: There will be this move. Then there is this move to more personalization.That doesn’t mean that you won’t hear and see broad broadcast messages that everybody sees, because I still think there’s a huge power in. Everybody’s seen the same message for certain launches and certain things. But on the back of that, there will be increases in dynamic personalization for guys. You know about that A.I. woman played by Scarlett, you’re handsome and plays the voice of Samantha. It’s kind of creepy because you realize what’s going on is that artificial intelligence is working out. You know the main character, Joaquin Phoenix’s character, on exactly what he wants to hear. I’m not really sure we will go that far, but that’s the way it will go. I don’t think it’s going to be blunt and brutal personalization with every ad shouting out Matt by this map because that wouldn’t show the intelligence that we can use through artificial intelligence, which would then inform how we should talk to you. What I’m Fascinated in is things like the psychology of influence. Like there’s people like Robert Chaldean, who does really amazing work on the weapons of influence Did using that to inform the creative that you hear so there could be different approaches to trying to persuade you to use a service or buy a product. And if it hasn’t worked the first time, then you should alter that young Children learned this about the age of three on all human beings do so. If a three year old wants an ice cream, they ask their mom or their dad in a certain way, and if they don’t get their way, they change it because they are learning from a very early age. They try a different approach and, you know, and I’d say that my little daughter doesthat. She’s like, Oh, you know, Dad, I really want ice cream. No, no. Have you had enough sweets or whatever today? And then she come back and then she’ll go.I’m sure I saw my brother’s. They’ve had a nice cream and I’m like, No, I’m not buying into that. And then she’ll come back and goes, Dad, you look really hot.Do you want an ice cream? And you know, and so she twists it around and you’re like, Well, hats off. But that’s that’s what we do as humans. You know, we experiment. We change, we test. We thought that’s how we do marketing advertising campaigns. All these digital marketing, that’s what they do. They Refine the altar. They change, they learn on. Then they redo that process again. And so when you think about Samantha and Scarlett, you’re handsome. Threads that you hear hopefully will reflect which ones worked for you last time. So you end up listening, hearing ads being exposed to ads that have taken your behavior into account in a slightly more advanced way than just showing you an image.

You can visit A Million Ads on their website hereA Million Ads.

You can also find Sam on LinkedIn hereSam Crowther.

If you enjoyed this interview, take a look at our article about Forging A Unique Identity For Your Voice App.

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