Iconic Adman Terry O’Reilly Helps Fight Radio Spots That Suck


You’ve heard plenty of them: radio ads that suck. Forget about making you remember the client, they make you remember the other preset buttons exist. They’re all over radio and hurt the perception of the great reach medium an advertiser could hope for. Every day this week in Radio Ink‘s headlines, we’re talking with a different expert – from local production to agency veterans – on how to stop the “suck.”

We start the series with one of advertising’s most respected names – Terry O’Reilly. Terry began his career writing commercials for a small Burlington, Ontario radio station, then went on to win a few hundred awards as a copywriter at three of Toronto’s leading advertising agencies. He created campaigns for brands such as Labatt, Molson, Bell, and Nissan. In 1990, Terry co-founded Pirate Radio & Television with eight recording studios in Toronto and New York City.

When Terry’s not creating advertising, he’s talking about it as the host of the
award-winning podcast and CBC Radio One/Sirius Satellite/WBEZ Chicago radio show,
Under The Influence.

Radio Ink: It’s the name of the series, so let’s get right into it – what percentage of radio ads do you think not suck?

Terry O’Reilly: I think that number is always consistent. I would think probably 10% of ads don’t suck. And maybe I’m being generous.

Radio Ink: Alright; now that’s out there, let’s look at the surface level of a bad ad. What makes you cringe the hardest in a spot? What can be in an ad that there’s no coming back from, in your mind?

Terry O’Reilly: Bad acting would probably be the first thing. When you’re hearing commercials that require a certain amount of talent to pull off, it’s stiff, bad, and amateur. That drives me crazy. And then the other thing I would say is advertisers’ belief that super repetition within a commercial makes it an effective commercial where you hear a phone number five times in 30 seconds or whatever. It’s just, it’s unnecessary. All the numbers do bleed together after a while.

Radio Ink: Let’s dig deeper. Your career has made stops at essentially every level of radio spot crafting. Can you share what you believe to be some of the primary reasons that a lot of radio advertisements fall short of their potential?

Terry O’Reilly: Radio is a very different medium from television. Yes, that’s a blinding flash of the obvious, but I think it takes a different mindset to create two different mediums. I think a lot of people in the advertising business don’t think of it that way, but you have to – radio needs a really big idea to be a great spot.

Television can have a half-assed idea and be an okay spot because you have a lot of production value in television, right? You can have spectacular visuals, you can have beautiful actors. There are a lot of elements within television that can make up for the lack of an idea.

In radio, your idea is front and center. A friend of mine had a great line about radio. He said it’s like being front and center in a squash court. There’s nowhere to hide on radio. As a writer, you’re fully exposed. Your chops as a writer come right to the forefront. You’re either a wonderful writer or you are absolutely in the wrong business.

Radio Ink: Well, you are a writer, not just of ads, but of several books. Your latest, My Best Mistake, is all about failure and its unexpected benefits. Sometimes even ads with the best planning can still lead to failure. Can you share some of your experiences and what you’ve learned from those moments in advertising?

Terry O’Reilly: You never stop learning in this business. I’ll say that right now. It’s not like you learn it all in the first five years of your career. I still feel I’m learning and I’m almost 40 years deep into the advertising business. You know what? I learned a couple of things about radio. One is you have to under-write it. Here’s what I mean:

I never used a stopwatch while writing radio. I always used word count because a great 30-second spot has about 85 words and a great :60 is about double that, of course. But if you use a stopwatch, you can lie to yourself. You can read it out loud, but it’s not :30 because you’ve sped up as you see the clock coming to 30 seconds, right? A word count never lies. So I always use the word count and I always under-wrote my commercials.

You also want to leave room for great actors to ad-lib. You want to leave a little breathing room because if you’ve got great actors in the room, they will come to the forefront. I would have to say, looking back on all the commercials I wrote and directed, most of my favorite moments are moments that I did not write. The actors just chimed in and had a wonderful ad-lib.

I was very excited to work with Martin Short years ago, and I surrounded him with really great Second City actors. But the spots weren’t working that well in the studio and everybody was getting nervous. A lot of pacing clients in the control room, you know? I was sitting there in that chaos as the director thinking, what’s going wrong here? I’ve got Martin Short, I’ve got Second City people surrounding him. And the scripts are funny, but they’re kind of not working. I realized the next day, not during the session, that Martin is a physical actor. He’s a great physical comedian, but when you take the physicality away from him, it’s a different thing. That was a big lesson for me.

So whenever I was hiring a celebrity for something, I would close my eyes and listen to their reels and determine whether they were still as amusing or as funny or as dramatic when you couldn’t see the physicality. That was a big expensive lesson for me.

Radio Ink: Over the decades that you’ve been working, has your perception of radio ads’ effectiveness changed?

Terry O’Reilly: Radio has always been my absolute favorite medium. I think sophisticated clients know that radio is a really powerful vehicle if used correctly. Radio follows somebody right to the point of purchase. If you’re out to buy something at the hardware store or whatever, radio can follow you right to the point of purchase, there in your car. Almost no medium can do that. So advertisers can write commercials or campaigns that drive with people to stores.

When the internet appeared, we realized very early on that radio was a great medium to send people to websites because a URL was much easier to remember than a phone number. The simpatico nature of the internet and radio was really powerful early on, which we love too. And you can get tactical with radio too. You can sponsor the weather if you’re a weather-related product. You can have interesting media buys that aren’t just the standard media buys. You can get creative with that. So I think radio offers a lot of flexibility.

It’s also the most creative medium of all because you’re not hemmed in by budget issues. You can be on the moon, in a heart valve, or at the bottom of the ocean just with great writing and a bag of sound effects. On television that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to pull off.

Radio Ink: How has the rise of digital played into your perceptions? You’re a podcaster who’s also on the radio. There’s a debate going on right now: is the business we’re in radio or is it audio? That’s one of the questions we asked the 40 Most Powerful People In Radio for our most recent issue. How has digital changed the advertising sphere? What’s a good way to get a leg up on conquering that?

Terry O’Reilly: It’s more audio than radio, I would say now. You see that reflected in advertising award shows because a lot of the categories have become audio categories, not radio categories.

Podcast advertising is such a throwback to 1940s radio because it’s host-read. All the advertisers want the host to read the commercial. There are very few pre-produced commercials and podcasts. They want a personal endorsement, and it’s a throwback to the Jack Benny Radio Show where Jack Benny would stop in the middle of a skit and sell some kind of cigarettes and have a smoke.

We’re back to that in podcast advertising, which I find so interesting. Advertisers want the host to infuse their personality into the brand because they know their audience better than the advertiser.

Radio Ink: Let’s talk about great creative. Every few seasons on Under the Influence, you’ll do an episode about radio ads that have caught your attention. If anyone’s looking for some inspiration for radio done right, what’s made your list lately?

Terry O’Reilly: The Cannes Advertising Festival just happened, and it’s a pretty spectacular week. This year’s audio winner was a brand that was talking about how they are so affordable because they do everything cheaply. So they just posted scripts on telephone poles or near grocery stores or near bookstores. At the bottom of the poster, it had a phone number where you can phone in and read the ad. So they had just regular people reading the ads and then phoning in and reading the ads to save money.

They were very funny. They were always written to be aware of what the ad was posted near, like if it was a grocery store or a bookstore or a strip joint.

Radio Ink: You wrote another book, This I Know: Marketing Lessons from Under The Influence, which was about providing advertising insights for the little guys. You started in local radio. What are some key takeaways for stations or clusters that can’t afford Martin Short or a big production house? So many stations have just one production person or a salesperson trying to write great copy on their own.

Terry O’Reilly: That’s how I started. I was the only writer in a small radio station and I had to write and produce all my own ads. It was baptism by fire, but I really fell in love with the medium. I got to make a lot of mistakes where nobody was really listening. It was a small radio station. I got to do some fabulous things because I really only had the client to answer to.

In that book that you’re referencing, This I Know, I wrote it for advertisers who don’t have a big advertising agency on speed dial. The very first chapter in that book is “What Business Are You Really In?” That’s an important question to ask your client if you’re an ad writer at a radio station because the answer is not always obvious.

Budweiser is not in the beer business, they’re in the party business. Michelin isn’t in the tire business, they’re in the safety business. Nike is not in the sneaker business, they’re in the motivation business.

You have to know what people are really buying, because if they’re buying safety and you’re advertising tires, they’re gonna cross the street to the tire place that’s advertising safety, right? It’s never the product, it’s always the benefit of the product. I think a lot of local radio stations go wrong there, they just sell the product. They’re not asking the pertinent questions like that of clients in that fast retail environment that you’re in when you’re in local radio.

Once I got an answer to that question, I could make a more relevant commercial out of the rest of the brief. And then it’s things like, “What’s the competition doing?” “What ground are they staking out?” So I know what not to do, or how to come at it through the side door.

“Who are we really talking to?” “Who’s the audience?” A 25-year-old mom with one child probably has more in common with a 35-year-old mom with one child than a 25-year-old single woman despite a 10-year spread in age. So demographics is one element of it, but I’m always more interested in psychographics. Like, what do they think about? What do they do? How does our product fit into their life realistically? And what’s their day like? You really wanna get a good picture of who you’re writing to.

Then I always insist on a simple brief for radio. A great brief should fit on a beer coaster. I still get two-page briefs. A great brief should sell one thing well. So what are we selling? What’s the main selling point? And then what are two support points that will help people believe the main selling point? And then what’s the call to action? End of story. That’s how simple a brief should be, especially on radio. Everybody tends to pack radio ads with information until it’s 10 pounds of potatoes in a five-pound bag.

Radio Ink: What’s one thing that has you excited about the state of radio advertising right now, and one thing that you would change for the future?

Terry O’Reilly: I love that audio is stretching out. So if you look at the winner of the Cannes Advertising Festival or even the London International Advertising Festival and look at the audio winners, they’re not confined to radio anymore. For example, you know when you’re driving and you’re going under a tunnel, how you lose all radio signals until you come out of the other end?

Somewhere in South America, they figured out a way to have a transponder in the tunnel. So when you went underneath the tunnel and you lost your radio signal, suddenly you heard a PSA about the silencing of journalists in certain countries and it was using the silence of a tunnel to make the point. That is so smart.

That’s why the advertising award shows had to expand the definition of the audio category. Radio was the medium, yes, but it was happening in a tunnel. What you can do with audio continues expanding, so I’m excited about that.

As for a change? I think radio needs to loosen its reins a bit and get more innovative with what writers can do. Ads shouldn’t be just 30 and 60 seconds. I used to always fight with stations saying, “Can I just send you a 40-second ad?” And they go, “Nope, :30 or :60.” They never played ball with us, and it was frustrating.

I think radio is going to suffer for that. In podcasting, I have no time limit – not that I want to do a half-hour commercial, but if I have an idea that takes 90 seconds and it’s a good idea, I’ll take 90 seconds. I could never have that on radio.

In tomorrow’s installment, we talk with Radio Mercury Award-winning Production Director TJ Hower at Seven Mountains Media.


  1. I still hear daily from good, smart people who LOVE radio and know how it works. None of them are looking for their next bonus, but are offering up the reality that radio can (and should) do sooo much better. Please remember that the “competition” – the digital services have yet to meet the excitement that radio provides. They don’t have the people. People LOVE radio because it does all the work. Dick Orkin. Chuck Blore. Mel Blanc. All loved radio -and used their creativity to enhance the word pictures that have made the audio medium the magical thing that it is. If radio can reach a common goal-it can be better. Sales people need to be tied to results for the client, not just “getting the order”. Same with writers, producers and talent. If radio stops producing results-then turn out the lights. There are too many smart people inside of radio to see it die. Time to fix it. This is a great start.

  2. Radio has almost always started out with two assumptions. 1) The audience is stupid. 2.) Those that are not cloth-heads are not paying attention anyway.
    This has resulted in the most base of language presentations and the delivery of direct and authoritative spots.
    The mystery was solved decades ago.

  3. As far as audio goes, radio is still king and does advertising so much better than any other form of audio. “Host read” commercials on podcasts sound very stilted and wooden. Live announcer reads have always happened on radio and have way more personality embedded within them. It’s not a throw back to the 1940’s. It’s something radio has always done and always will. I don’t know what stations Terry was dealing with, but radio offers a heap of flexibility in terms of commercial length. 15, 30, 45, 60, 90, 120 … then you’ve got 5 or 10 second tags … I’ve even heard 1 second ads for mini cars which were so clever.

  4. Great article from Terry ! Someone else you need to interview is Sally Hogshead. She’s a former major market copywriter as well as ad agency owner and the best selling author of How the World Sees You as well as Fascinate-Revised and Updated and coming soon her newest book Different is Better than Better ! Her first two books are also available on Audible. She’s the best and has been seen for years on major networks analyzing the Super Bowl commercials.


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