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Music Lessons from Sunderland, Succession, and the Super Bowl


Grey London’s strategy director Ed Hayne considers why it’s worth trusting the experts when it comes to track choice – not just your own questionable personal taste

Music Lessons from Sunderland, Succession, and the Super Bowl

It’s the summer of 2018 and Sunderland Football Club is preparing for a new season. Charlie Methven, the club’s new executive director wants to make The Stadium of Light a fortress again and has decided the way to do that is to change the stadium music. 

He’s therefore gathered his beleaguered marketing team, “to help them understand and see what 'great' looks like." 

To his credit, he has a brief in mind, albeit something David Brent or a Downing Street party organiser might have dreamt up. Of more concern is the fact that it’s completely at odds with the expectations of the local Sunderland fans we’ve met so far in the documentary. 

“You gotta try to build people up and you gotta try to get the atmosphere building through a track. If you try to think about the atmosphere that Chris and I agree that we're trying to create, we want to see rocking in there. And a bit... a little bit mad.” 

What follows is the perfect illustration of why a pivotal creative decision should never be left to an amateur. 

Alarmingly, these issues aren’t confined to an old Etonian trying to run a football club in the North East. I once worked with clients who were addicted to using an already ubiquitous Spandau Ballet track in their ads and wouldn’t budge when we suggested otherwise. And then when they finally decided to move on from the dulcet tones of Tony Hadley, a senior exec rejected the approved track at the last minute because he “didn’t like it”. The consequence? Without anything else changing, the film went from being outstanding to OK. 

This all too familiar behaviour seems even more remarkable given it’s been well documented that music is one of the most powerful weapons we have in our creative armoury. Les Binet and Sarah Carter found that around 90% of international TV ads use music and yet creative is often put into research with a track that you won’t hear on the final edit. Their brilliant analysis of the IPA’s databank underlines why music should never be an afterthought. For example, they found that: 

1. The free media exposure arising from the music in the John Lewis Christmas ad each year is estimated to increase campaign impact by around 75% 
2. Using music prominently in a TV ad enhances effectiveness by 20-30%

Evidently, it’s hard to overestimate how important music can be in short and longer formats. It’s an almost purely emotional medium, capable of instantly transforming a message. 

I’m sure that’s why the creators of popular TV shows give it the attention, expertise, and investment it deserves. Take Succession for example. This drama, which coincidentally launched around the same time as Charlie Methven’s ‘Accidental Partridge’, is loved not only for the quality of script writing and performance, but also the brilliant title credits and music. In fact, they’ve become so popular, the skip button is redundant in even the most trigger-happy households. When was the last time a YouTube pre-roll did that? 

Furthermore, if Succession’s title song is not addictive enough, it evolves into various smaller pieces during the show, often played on different instruments and with different chord sequences. Not only does it sound great, but it’s also incredibly effective at enabling characters to navigate through complex emotions and predicaments. I don’t know about you, but that sounds a little more considered than a beleaguered client sifting through Coldplay’s back catalogue with a deadline looming. 

Of course, some clients and agency folk absolutely get what it’s all about. Sir John Hegarty unsurprisingly has loads of interesting stories around song choice, particularly concerning his Levi’s 501 campaigns. He talks about finding the connection between the music and the story and then finding the rhythm of the piece. Proper craft, not last-minute drag and drop. 

BBH’s work on Tesco has rightly been lauded, with the bold track choices playing a pivotal role in the success of their recent Christmas campaigns. 

Likewise, my agency Grey’s memorable film for the British Heart Foundation, where Vinnie Jones demonstrates CPR in time to the Bee Gees classic ‘Staying Alive’ is an idea that continues to literally save lives. Not a bad KPI to hit. 

And before I get too carried away, the gang behind McDonalds UK’s consistently brilliant creative work should also take a bow. ‘Return of the Mack’ by Mark Morrison on their first ad after lockdown was spot on. So good, in fact, that I was humming the tune as I queued at my local drive through the day it was released. Maybe that says more about me. 
I could go on and on (don’t worry, I won’t), but it’s no coincidence that at Grey’s weekly ‘I Wish I’d Done That’ sessions, music features prominently in many of the ideas that are shared. 

It’s an inspirational half hour and a recent talk made me think that perhaps the biggest lesson from the Sunderland fiasco is that less can be more when it comes to drawing an audience in and building anticipation. Investment in a track doesn’t mean you have to simply press play. Sometimes that might feel right, but there are some incredible examples of brands thinking differently about how they use a song. In my opinion, Chrysler’s Super Bowl effort from a few years ago is hard to beat. 

The craft is exceptional and sets a benchmark that I believe more brands should be aspiring to musically. 

So, take note Charlie Methven and any other dads at the disco for that matter. If you want to know “what ‘great’ looks like”, trust the experts and look no further.

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Grey, Mon, 14 Feb 2022 11:34:00 GMT