In Praise of Songs

We asked creatives about their favourite ad soundtrack and the importance of music in good work

By Elliot Leavy

The 'Tune Out Pain' project, devised and developed by Nurofen in collaboration with McCann London, was an experiment into the effects of music on mood and experience.

Nurofen’s first-of-its-kind study partnered Dr Claire Howlin, psychology researcher at the University College Dublin, with music producer Anatole, (aka Jonathan Baker), a Conservatory-trained trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist, to compose the track, All of Us.

Released on Spotify, the track was shown to reduce levels of pain and unpleasantness in a way that was clinically and statistically significant.

Music has been known to convey feeling for millennia. It is in our bones, as social species, to respond to sound and rhythm in physiological ways. Such responses can vary, from joyful to fearful, anger to sadness, and in the case of the 'Tune Out Pain' campaign, pain to comfort.

As such an integral part of the storytelling process, song choice can then obviously make or break an ad. Why was Cadbury's 'Gorilla' (set to Phil Collins' In The Air Tonight) undeniably seminal, whilst it’s follow-up campaign 'Airport trucks' featuring Queen's Don’t Stop Me Now undeniably forgettable?

Or why is it that certain Christmas spots reduce us to tears - see John Lewis passim - whilst others enrage us for thinking about a holiday months away. In short, why is it that certain music is selected for one scenario over another?

It’s a complex picture. One thing that is clear is how powerful ads have an important role in music, as much as music has an important role in making great work. This is because ads promote songs to audiences who might otherwise not have heard them, often re-galvanising tracks that had been cast to the wayside in yesteryear.

It's a point proven by songs commissioned for ads themselves, such as for the Coca-Cola classic 'Hilltop' (know as I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing), or the classic Hovis song, (Dvorak's From The New World), now having a place in wider culture today.

Because of this, we wanted to find out how it is that a song gets wedded to an ad. We asked a collection of creatives what their favourite piece of music that they've used in an ad and the story behind them. Here are their responses:

Tom Drew, executive creative director at Wunderman Thompson

Oops…! I (nearly) did it again. 

Rarely does the track that the creatives had in mind when writing a commercial end up being in the finished ad. That said, this did happen for my most recent Christmas campaign for Tesco.

The pressure was on because the planned track for the previous Christmas campaign turned out not to work in the edit. It didn’t fit at all. So for 2020, instead of keeping our options open to avoid last year’s disappointment, we did it all over again and just prayed for a better result. 

So when we suggested (initially as a joke) that, for the No Naughty List campaign of 2020, we should use Britney Spears Oops!…I did it again, I thought history was going to repeat itself and the irony of the song’s name would not be lost. 

How on earth could it work? It was wall-to-wall with lyrics which would fight with the dialogue. And how could we get it? Britney didn’t control her catalogue. Surely that would be a costly mess.

But it was such a good thematic fit for the campaign and such a fresh perspective for a Christmas ad that that we couldn’t not hope.

Then when we saw that it worked on the edit everyone just worked around the clock to make it happen.

The email late, late into post-production that just read ‘Britney’s approved’ was our Christmas miracle. 

Rich Denney, executive creative director, St. Luke's

In 2012 I created an ad for Halfords called ‘The Trip’ directed by the amazing Frederic Planchon. This really was a personal project as the film was a snapshot of my life as a child growing up with camping holidays. We tried so many different tracks on it, but none captured the spirit or energy we were after to truly connect it with the audience until we saw a cut with The Skids Into The Valley on it.

It was an incredible moment. The final piece of the jigsaw. It was anarchic, just like the kids in the ad with their catapults - it had the right level of nostalgia too but gave Halfords the modernity they desperately needed. It was totally unexpected and brought a whole new direction for Halfords which was much needed after some pretty generic retail ads.

I remember showing it to the senior client Gerry Murphy who almost wept when he saw it. It took him back to a moment in time too, which was just what we wanted the ad to do. Every time I play the music, it makes me want to get my Grifter out and go riding…Happy days.

Helen Rhodes, executive creative director, BBH London

My favourite piece of music that I’ve used in an ad recently is the soundtrack for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics BBC Trailer. It was created from the brain of the brilliantly talented music composer Kenji Kawai, who was responsible for the soundtrack of anime neo-noir cyberpunk thriller Ghost in the Shell, as well as many of Hideo Nakata’s horror films.

As with everything in the ad we wanted to be authentic to Japanese culture so enlisting Kenji’s help was an inspired choice by the creatives, Rachel and Michael. He especially came into his own when discussing the J-Pop scene where he had the idea of featuring the famous Vocaloid singer Hatsune Miku. You don’t get more authentic J-Pop than that. He was a true master of his craft and had a badass mullet hairstyle to boot.

Dave Monk, executive creative director, Publicis•Poke

I love an ad that has music woven through the heart of the idea. I think a favourite piece of music I’ve ever used in an ad was for an ad that never ran or saw the light of day. It was purely made as prospective pitch theatre. (Maybe this doesn’t even count!).

Anyway, the ad showcased various guitars, and used loop pedals to build a track. The track eventually culminated in the classic Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes. The reason I like it is because it was a lesson in how to get stuff made in record time.

The idea was conceived on a Thursday, we spent the Friday in the studio writing each musical section, shot the ad on the Saturday, edited Sunday and pitched on the Monday (sounds like a Craig David song). I think it may have helped win the pitch and I believe Jack White did see it and approved the tracks use (which is obviously nice) but sadly it was only ever destined for the directors reel.

Jim Hilson, deputy executive creative director, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

Music is so important for the work, and it is often the most enjoyable and the most difficult part of the process. We grew up listening to the Levi’s ad tracks, so when we got our turn, it was very counterintuitive to just use dialogue on our 'Bike' spot.

The story of a music soundtrack that sprang to mind was really Edwina’s story. She is a key part of the team and our superlative producer on Bodyform/Libresse and went beyond the call securing the perfect track on #Bloodnormal. A track by The Blaze which, interestingly for the subject matter, is called Virile.

It started out with Business Affairs negotiating the music as they do. We’ll never forget an email after Edwina had pushed them several times on why it was a no, where they said, “I know you all like the film, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.”

A few weeks after that, Edwina picked it up directly with the publisher. Basically, she used the brute-force approach and just hounded them with daily emails for about a month, pushing the importance of the idea, calling a few times saying she would swing by their office to chat through in person as she was “in the area”, and they finally got sick enough that they caved.

In the early days, everyone was wary of being associated with a period ad. Even though they’d seen the film and liked it, perhaps there was a risk that it would reflect badly on their reputation. Which, of course, didn’t because it all did so well. Now bands and labels who were previously unenthused about being a part of the campaigns now chomp at the bit for the recent films, so clearly, we’ve come a long way.

Alexander Jones, creative, Grey

Music really is at the heart of all the best campaigns.

It can literally be the deciding factor that takes an idea from just an ad, to become iconic and a real part of culture… There’s TRULY nothing better than a track that gets stuck in someone’s head.

Unfortunately, in our career so far, my creative partner and I have encountered a lot of near misses.

One EXPENSIVE miss would’ve been when we tried to use an iconic track from a famous rapper (whose name might or might not rhyme with a chocolate,) as the voice of an EPIC sports film… 7 million pounds for usage? A battle that was furious, but short. Another example, not so long later, was when we tried using a jazzy hip-hop track on a film for a household furniture brand… missing out on giving an otherwise beautiful film the energy it needed to be remembered because of client preference was a low blow.

However, the fight goes on despite the near misses. We continue to write to music that in our mind FITS the brief, the tone of the ad and the mood that we’re in. Putting our own individual flair on the work, with sounds that we personally prefer, or are trending in some way that’ll get the work right into people’s minds.


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