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Off-Beat: Why Ad Music Shouldn’t Be Obvious


LBB’s Ben Conway speaks to music supervisors and ad experts from around the world about the benefits of using musical deep cuts in ads

Off-Beat: Why Ad Music Shouldn’t Be Obvious

An unexpected musical choice in an ad can make your head turn, your ears prick up and your feet stop in their tracks. But so many campaigns fall back on tired genre tropes, ol’ reliable favourites and generic chart toppers, instead of exploring the symphony of sounds that hum gently beneath the sonic surface. So how can music supervisors and creatives find hidden gems to bring some surprising polyphonic pleasure to an audience’s eardrums? And what makes these gems shine brighter than the more obvious soundtrack alternatives?

To answer these questions and explore a world of audio anomalies that helped turn good ads into great ones, LBB’s Ben Conway spoke with creatives, music producers, supervisors and more from a global selection of agencies and music companies. Counting us in with a one and a two is the marketing maestro Sir John Hegarty, co-founder of BBH, who is a strong believer in the power of music, and no stranger to the benefits of a beat from the blue.

Sir John Hegarty

Co-founder of BBH, co-founder and creative director at The Garage Soho and The Business of Creativity

Music has always been a powerful force in advertising, from the crass jingles of the early days of TV to the sophisticated application of famous tracks in today’s broadcast world, often pushing them higher in the charts than when they were originally released. Music connects with people on an emotional level like no other art form - creating empathy and memorability. It’s not then surprising that advertising has used it. 

But the trick is to surprise your audience, creating a soundtrack that adds extra meaning and purpose to the visuals. Stanley Kubrick’s use of a Strauss waltz in his movie ‘2001’, juxtaposing a revolving spaceship with the famous waltz, is a classic example of surprise, creating intrigue and drama. So advertising needs to do the same, understanding firstly that film has a rhythm, then matching that rhythm with a track that connects and enhances the message. Not being obvious and following the crowd becomes crucial. A great example is when we shot Levi’s ‘Swimmer’ - we laid [Dinah Washington’s] ‘Mad About the Boy’ against the visuals and changed the way you expected to be engaged by a Levi’s commercial and opened the audience to a completely different genre of music.

It’s not just about memorability but also surprise.

Leland Drake

Senior music producer at Grey Group

One of the most important things to consider when searching for the right song is to make sure that the song immediately gets the viewer to look up from their phone and see the work. Using something unexpected is a great way to accomplish this. One way to think about an unexpected track is to look for songs that have disappeared from contemporary culture, but still live deep in people’s subconscious. Everyone knows that feeling when a song you haven’t heard or thought about for years comes on and you somehow miraculously sing along to every word and think ‘ooh I forgot about this song!’. Those are the kinds of songs that have the head-turning power needed to immediately get people’s attention. I’m lucky enough to lead music licensing on the Applebee’s account, where we license a high volume of music, so I’m able to explore this technique often. 

Liz Pfriem

Senior music supervisor at TBWA\Media Arts Lab

I’m not quite sure how or where I discovered Esquivel, maybe a rabbit hole in college that included Les Baxter, Yma Sumac and the likes from a reissue or compilation. He is considered one of the foremost exponents of late 1950s/early 1960s quirky instrumental pop that became known as ‘Space Age Bachelor Pad Music’. His compositions have always been a go-to for when I need a traditional score, but less expected and with a wink. When the ask came in for a track to score ‘Privacy on iPhone - Data Auction’, he was one of my first stops. We could have gone traditional, custom, or even something over the top like opera, but ‘Fantasy’ provided the perfect comedic pacing to stress the urgency, and the solution to keeping your data private. I love digging deep, trying out the unexpected and am lucky enough to have an agency and client that embraces an unexpected earworm. 

Morgan Thoryk

Music supervisor and partner at Good Ear Music Supervision

An unexpected song can infuse a scene with backstory, a curious perspective… a secret. Weird is wonderful! Weird is timeless! I spend my days searching the depths of the internet for deep cuts and delightful gems. Then I wait and wait and wait for the perfect project to come along. I have a long list of eccentric, charming and bizarre tracks that I’m dying to place - forever looking for the perfect film to pair with an Egyptian funk cut or overlooked ‘80s ballad. 

I cut my teeth working on the ‘Shot on iPhone’ launch, a dizzyingly creative campaign that pushed for unexpected song choices with each spot. It’s always such a delight when the brief is ‘no brief’ - or better yet, when it encourages us to get weird and play with expectations. That kind of collaboration shows trust in the partnership and pushes a music supe to do their best work. It was that approach that led our company to place songs from Odetta, Sun Ra, Eddy Arnold, James and Bobby Purify and even a Bob Fosse score.

Jack Bradley

CEO and executive producer at HiFi Project Inc.

Finding deeper cuts is something that’s much more readily possible with access to vast music resources, but what’s most important is telling the right story. I find success in curating with brands and their agencies by discussing their strategy and goals, but then lead with music that could scare them. Often that ends up segueing into something more palatable or safe, but it’s important to push people musically as the unexpected sometimes creates gold.

Target wanted something to take its simple spot to the next level. Trap was turning mainstream at the time, so we placed this DJ Snake track in there before DJ Snake really blew up. The Minnesota Twins is a client who loves to push its content further and, although the spot could have easily gone cinematic, or straight jock rock, we guided them to a bespoke pop-influenced banger so the audio would equal the visual pop. And GAP had wanted something to push its incredibly simple spot by dialling up music.  We worked with DJ/producer Ki: Theory to create this original song which brings incredible energy and movement to the edit.

Pierre-Marie Wudarski

Creative sync and business development at Cezame Music Agency

The choice of music in an advertisement has to deal with many parameters: advertiser, targeted audience, the intention of the product itself… A common pitfall is when a client wants a track that speaks to everyone but is unique and original. So, how do you juggle contradictory desires? Universality and uniqueness. This leads to a search for the famous ‘this is it’ that we all seek.

Take the following project: ‘Valentine’s Day - The Essentiality of Beauty’ by L’Oreal. You will see the music is not that expected. Here, it’s about sharing values - and what more universal value than love? Love for oneself and for someone who loves us just as we are. We emphasise the little beauty rituals that make us feel good, at any age, for ourselves and the people we love without vain coquetry. The music of this idea is not an obvious answer, so let’s try to understand what we want to express. Love… romance… Something jazzy perhaps? Flamenco?

It’s about the passing of time, but without nostalgia, it should be sweet and uplifting at the same time. Or we could take a very modern approach with something pop but maybe humorous? Let’s first look for emotion. Neo-classical instrumentation - more universal and less codified than other musical genres - brings, if not modernity, something contemporary and cyclical. The crescendoing violin brings a more vivid feeling, an exaltation. And then the return to something minimal - simple and beautiful.

Once you have synchronised the music and the image, it’s impossible to consider any other music: ‘This is it!’

Oliver Stutz

ECD and partner at Two AM

In an industry where standing out is crucial, taking the less-expected musical path can be a game changer, often leading to freer and more potent creative expression.

From a composer's perspective in particular, breaking the mould and composing a less conventional piece is almost always more exciting, expressive, and engaging. However, one has to also carefully consider the audience’s understanding and interpretation, and assess whether the creative team’s own personal bias is affecting the clarity of the decision-making. The line between one’s blind personal taste and one’s constructive style choices is infinitely narrow, and music’s extremely subjective nature only heightens this challenge. Daring to push the norm and take the less-expected path can open doors to something exceptional, but it can also lead to a piece that misses the runway and its audience too. Balancing this tightrope and finding the harmony in being unique while effectively communicating your narrative at the same time is the game we all play.

Hannah Charman

Managing director and co-founder, RESISTER

I always find it exciting when advertising manages to use music to enhance a story in an unexpected way. My favourite example of this is the Cadbury’s ‘Boogie’ spot. 

This song hadn’t had a popular sync for a long time when this came out and suddenly everyone was remembering the words. The juxtaposition of the grey of the office, the mundane voicemail message and the sound of working late in a miserable office then matched with such a sunny, flirtatious vocal really brings a smile to my face. Lyrically, the song is about dancing yet the character in the spot remains in his chair and keeps his motions small. I think we’ve all been standing at bus stops or in line at the bank when an absolute banger comes on and your shoulder just does a little wiggle to refrain you from breaking out into a full dance number – I know I do this regularly. This ad just brings me to one of those moments.

Brice Cagan

Head of music at Machine

This really comes down to our genre tests which help us dial into different sync points, as well as the overall tone of a film. We try to figure out the direction before composing, which ultimately ends up saving the clients and composers when it comes time to revise. We always test out a few dozen or so tracks before to find out what’s working and, more importantly, what isn’t. This allows us to make a few oddball choices which usually add a bit of irony or humour to the film. It also lets us experiment with some ideas without the risk of wasting our client's money and our composer's time. Sometimes tracks just work, and we still aren’t completely certain why.

Alex Groom

Executive creative director at Cake 

Music selection is so often the thing that gets audiences talking and that’s ultimately what we want, right?

The audience is the starting point in the search for unexpected greatness. What’s going to hook them? Are they brave in their tastes? Could you push their musical boundaries? Are they a nostalgic bunch - could you find a sound that calls back to the past? Are they a youthful audience that’s super deep in a scene? Match their tastes with the intention of the creative idea and you start narrowing things down a bit.

But, the audience is one factor. The brand is another and, ultimately, they’re paying! It’s got to feel right for them. It needs to compliment the brand’s personality, otherwise it risks feeling try-hard and inauthentic. Context is key too. Even if you want a surprising deep cut, the track’s got to be appropriate for the narrative of the work. There’s so much great music out there, it’s a case of spending the time digging deeper for those (in budget) gems. Any creative will tell you it’s the hardest part of the process, but the most worthwhile when it comes together.

Theresa Notartomaso

Executive music producer at VMLY&R

One of my favourite parts of my job is how organic music discovery can be. I listen to a lot of songs day in and day out and it still gives me such joy to come across a hidden gem by an artist I’ve never heard of. It’s so bold when a brand finds value in investing in unknown music versus capitalising on a recognisable hit. 

I have the pleasure of overseeing music supervision for New Balance’s ‘We Got Now’ campaign – and the music exploratory for this initial campaign was challenging in the best way possible.  We went through tons of songs from labels and publishers, big and small, from all around the world and landed on an extremely catchy jam from 1977 called, ‘Hey You’ by funk band Experience Unlimited. This track is so infectious and I personally get excited every time I see it on TV, knowing that I had a small part in helping an unknown song and band gain exposure to a new audience.

Chris Christoforou

Production assistant and associate music supervisor at SIREN Music Supervision

The deeper the cut, the better. I think there are so many advantages of digging deep and finding something lesser known - mainly because you can really shape it around a brand’s identity, to then ultimately become part of it. Most likely, there will be that perfect song out there, just waiting to be found and paired with a visual.

Just because it’s not well-known, doesn’t mean it’ll do worse for your campaign - I actually think it’ll do the opposite. You’re better off finding something no one has ever heard before and making it yours. If the track is perfect for the spot, the music will do the talking and make for a much more memorable piece of work.

Alex Menck

Head of Americas at Big Sync Music

We worked with a Chilean agency in a campaign for Comfort, a mainstream popular softener that wouldn’t usually be associated with garage punk, but our team placed a punk song, ‘Davey Crockett (Gabba Hey)’, interpreted by the British all-female garage band called The Headcoatees. The result amazed us, as the song gave the spot a unique vibe, and a fun, powerful, and liberating feel that surprised audiences from beginning to end. 

We chose the track mainly because it was unexpected, and the rather dragging tempo allowed for the slower shots. The female vocals and the all-female choir helped the spot immensely by adding to the playful feel and indirectly catering to the female consumer group. With the help from Bucks Music (publisher) and Damaged Goods (label), licensing this relatively obscure track for a South American campaign caught everyone by surprise. Other international brands loved this spot so much that we’ve received many requests to extend this campaign to other territories, showing us that even lesser-known recordings can travel far when the combination of a well-shot story meets the right music.

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 29 Mar 2023 15:54:00 GMT