Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Message In Merrill Lynch: A Lesson in Sonic Branding

In 1995, if memory serves correctly, it was Steven Cohen, the senior vice president and management supervisor on the Merrill Lynch account at Bozell Worldwide, who tapped his car keys on the glass coffee table before him and declared:

"This not the sound of Merrill Lynch."

And with that one sentence, our demos were dust.

The specific spot Cohen was referring to was alternately titled 'Privatization' and 'South African Leaders' (Titles change as spots evolve from storyboard to broadcast). And it was produced by Paul Gold and Jean-Claude Kaufmann, who was then the Director of Broadcast Production at the New York office of Bozell Worldwide.

Both Kaufmann and Gold were not only among our most important clients, but their passion for the work, and the humanity they brought to the game, always made them enjoyable to work with. They also both belonged to a group of advertising professionals that I considered role models for best-of-breed creative producers.

And it helped that both men seemed to share a parallel musical aesthetic with the creative direction produced by our music team. So, even though we worked hard, it was generally easy to get on the same page, which is not always the case with every client.

Indeed, the process from demo production through revisions and an eventual narrowing down of selections to two or three suitable options proceeded as efficiently as one can hope for any project.

But only when the New York agency’s creative team were fully satisfied that our music score options fully satisfied the story objectives required by the footage, did they send the music down to the Merrill Lynch account execs, which were based in Princeton. Naturally, we were surprised when word came back that they were definitely not impressed. As head of music production, I was especially none too pleased to see what had at first seemed a finely executed project return to the studio as a full blown crisis. Gold and Kauffman informed us that an emergency meeting was requested and we made the necessary arrangements (i.e., vacuumed the floors and ordered food from a really nice restaurant).


Some days later, a black and gray suited swarm of Bozell and Merrill Lynch representatives filled our studios looking like Federal Agents securing a location, so that the doors were blocked, calls were held and the facility felt like if was on lock-down.

It was only when Cohen arrived that we learned the reason for the Senior VP’s concern. He demanded that not only the soundtrack enhance the story –as was the usual rote instruction for every project– but also that the tonality of the music score itself reflect the Identity of the financial institution. In effect, Cohen demanded that the score, absent of picture, would be identifiable as unique branded audio asset for the company.

In hindsight, it seems like a perfectly reasonable request. But in 1995, most scores for TV commercials in 1995 did not do that. By the way, most commercial scores in 2006 don’t do that either. Then and now, most clients commission music that either works as a bed or simply “supports the story”, exactly in the same manner as a film score enhances a movie cue, but say with a bit of audio pixie dust for a product or logo reveal. The task of creating original music and sound design for TV and Radio commercials did not –or only rarely– require a brand analysis.

We were already familiar with the notion of creating a project specific ‘palette’ of sounds for other classes of projects, such as broadcast network or cable channel packaging, but that was considered a different kind of media animal.

Anyway, Cohen shook his head and played our military snare parts back to us on the table (again using his keys). We were puzzled by his criticism. We felt we had presented a regal fanfare that any financial institution would have been happy to have. And yet, Cohen's arrangement for car keys and glass coffee table, intended to mimic our score (and possibly belittle our intelligence) sounded rather tinny and funereal on playback to me, which was his point.

It did not help matters that a delicate white bowl holding perfectly balanced exotic fruit from Indonesia rattled in sympathetic unison with the rat-a-tat-tats.

'Beyond being symphonic, what was Merrill Lynch supposed to sound like, anyway?'–I wondered.

I know what my colleagues –award winning composers all– were thinking:

'Merrill Lynch be damned, the music works!'

We were frankly befuddled, and Cohen’s departure was followed by internal argument. However, after some discussion, it eventually did click and make sense:

The music we had initially produced supported the narrative just fine, in the cinematic way that a film score enhances a movie experience, however the music did not actually convey anything about the client's Identity or immediate communication objective –the Message– beyond the action and emotion evident in the footage.

When I say 'Message', I mean:

The symbolic transmission of a client's brand attributes.

And if we felt that any financial institution would have been happy to have the track, perhaps it was because our arrangement wasn't specific to any one brand! We had composed symphonic works for other financial institutions before, and it was then that I realized that prior to 'Privatization', melody was the only differentiating element that separated music for one bank from music for another.

We resolved the musical issue and delivered two arrangements that not only ‘enhanced the story’, but were arranged in such a manner that they uniquely conveyed our client’s brand attributes.


I never approached another project again without the knowledge I gained on from that project. In fact, when Kaufmann and Gold would later that year commission us with the the production of another score for the Bahamas Board of Tourism, we certainly approached that campaign with a newfound branded sensibility. At the time we called it 'Identity' and not 'Branding', and in hindsight, I think Identity formation is closer to what we were doing than branding, even if the latter word also includes the other today.

After that however, I can also tell you that out of hundreds of projects before and after Merrill Lynch –with the exception of network packaging and tourism board commissions– McDonald's is the only other client I recall whose every spot arrived with a precise sound schematic (this during the French Fry wars of the mid nineties).

Today, anyone who has been in the business of commercial audio for some time will not be surprised by this revelation. Music often represents the final step in the production process before a campaign goes to air. It is arguably part of the post-production process, although clients will sometimes invite participation during pre-production to discuss storyboards –possibly ten to twelve weeks before the shoot. But the conversation where everyone discusses how to communicate a sales objective within parameters established by brand values? That happened twelve months ago, without you, the composer, present. At that stage, your opinion (as the audio/music vendor) was considered irrelevant (by the client). Too bad, because I think 'branded arrangements’ would serve some clients much better than simply an old fashioned movie score.

For the most part, music production is often squeezed into an absurdly short development period (assuming quality is also to be considered). Did we tell you that you had a two weeks? Well, now you have two days; can we hear demos this afternoon?

There were times when I literally had 24 hours to produce a forty or fifty piece live orchestra performing a fully orchestrated original piece of music (which of course had to be first vetted by several layers at the ad agency) –including revisions. You'd be surprised with all year to prepare, how many Super Bowl spots are still in production right down to the wire, and how often the music is commissioned with only days to go before the big game.

So, when exactly does the sonic brand conscious composer hope to execute his or her brand analysis before beginning work?

The reality is that most of the time, clients afford music teams a fifteen-minute conference call and then you’re off; and it’s a mad dash to get approvals and finish before the air date.

Notwithstanding this circumstance, however, I still believe that if this is how you want to practice your art, then you do need to develop an aptitude for developing marketing, message (brand attributes ) and story objectives into semiotic audio strategies that work on both the micro and macro levels (for the spot at hand AND for the brand).

No one said it was easy.

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