101 Great Minds on
Music, Brands and Behavior
Director of Production at Mother
"Music can play the role of a multiplier, relative to an image."
Miike Aaron, Director of Production, Mother
Aaron arrived at Mother in 2007 after spending eight years producing for the celebrated creative ad agency Fallon in Minneapolis. Concurrent with his responsibilities at Fallon, Aaron assumed the role of Executive Producer of Uncle Forehead Filmworks, producing both commercials and new media projects for blue-chip clients, including Lee Jeans’ interactive three-episode miniseries, “Buddy Lee, Guidance Counselor,” airing on MTV. At Mother, Aaron oversees the production department.
Reese: Thanks for joining us. It’s amazing how many people have agreed to be part of this conversation.
Aaron: I’m interested to know if you’ve spoken to anybody from within the religious community? Because I think music plays a significant role in terms of how you consume religion; especially in how you experience it as a child. Certain institutions have realized tactics that are very effective ways of capturing peoples’ attention. Think of choirs and what a powerful branding tool they can be.
Reese: The Catholic church is one of the most successful brands in the world. And of course singing is a far more effective way of communicating than speaking. A song imprints on people.
Aaron: What’s interesting to me is that music can play the role of a multiplier, relative to an image. A picture can be powerful: let’s say picture of starving children in Africa. But when you add music, it becomes so much more powerful, so much more engaging. You could see the same image in a newspaper or online, as part of a montage set to music, and it’s the music that really drives the message home… In fact, the diminishing returns of print might be related to how incredibly dynamic and powerful images can be when they’re set to music in the online environment.
Reese: Music is a way of lowering a person’s defenses. How does that relate to advertising, for you? After all, we’ve just established that however cynical you are, or whatever I’m selling, if I come at you with music, I hit you harder.
Aaron: But you can’t solely rely on music to make communication effective. It has to work alongside the visuals and the message that’s inherent in the communication. The music track isn’t the tipping point – you need to create something that’s incredibly effective visually for the audio to play its role. If you have a bad piece of visual communication, paired with a music track, you could make it even worse. But if you have an incredible piece of visual communication and then you combine it with the most appropriate track, it can be exponentially more powerful.
Reese: So how do you know when you’ve found the perfect track? What’s your process for getting it “right”?
Aaron: I’m very keen on finding something that’s not going to detract from or interfere with the visuals. In advertising these days I think less is more at times – things don’t need to be the loudest spot on TV, the one with the most bass. When people are being bombarded with messages all the time, it’s OK to have quiet moments… I remember our agency was working on a Super Bowl spot for BMW many years ago, and it just had minimalist but very well done sound design: a kind of gentle breeze blowing. And amidst the sheer chaos the Super Bowl, that caught peoples’ attention even more. Because it stood out.
Reese: Communicating music seems to be very frustrating for a lot of creatives – they feel they can’t describe what’s in their minds. Are there ways of communicating music that work for you?
Aaron: Talking about music is one of the most difficult parts of creating advertising, because it’s so abstract. It’s like trying to describe a Rorschach test. What do you see in this ink blot? Even if you have a clear idea in your mind, you don’t want to be overly prescriptive with the composer, who’s an inherently creative person. You want to give them latitude. So you end up describing emotion. It’s hard, but it gives them creative freedom. Because that’s when the happy accidents happen.
Reese: To the extent you have to let go of the tune in your head.
Aaron: Another approach is to give them music references. Which I don’t like to do, because it’s like drawing them a map to an exact destination. What you want to do is give them a general compass heading. The path they choose should be up to them.
Reese: When can you say ‘this is the music that will go on air’? Is it completely subjective?
Aaron: Since it’s such an emotional subject, it’s inevitably a gut reaction.
Reese: Who’s involved in the final decision?
Aaron: Well…everyone. Obviously, the clients have the final say. Our job is to give them several effective options. But at the end of the day, it’s so subjective that there’s no clear right or wrong choice. There’s no equation: we can’t say, “These notes work with these people; this level of bass resonates with this culture.” The science isn’t at that level yet. At this point it’s still a leap of faith.
Reese: Is there a way to isolate the return on investment on music? I believe that‘s something that both brands and ad agencies struggle with. Can you justify the price tag?
Aaron: Fortunately it’s not any one person’s decision how much things cost. The market decides the most appropriate price for a piece of music in a given context. There’s already a structure for that – although there’s some latitude within those general confines. But you don’t just pick a number off a wall.
Reese: Talking of effectiveness, we all have a list of our greatest hits – they’re the key to our musical preferences. With all the data-gathering we’re doing now, one day there might be an algorithm that can identify our music tastes and make brand messages more powerful by personalizing their soundtracks for us. What do you think of that idea?
Aaron: I think it’s true that if there’s a type of music I like, and if you associate it with a certain brand, then I’m likely to have a more favorable impression of that brand. But what you’re describing is a somewhat sad state of affairs. If consumers are constantly being spoonfed exactly what they like, they’re not going to appreciate the full emotional spectrum of everything that’s out there. Things are only good and bad by comparison. If you take away that continuum of comparison, you water everything down.
Reese: Would you hire a testing company specialized in music? To take away some of that subjectivity?
Aaron: I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t take all opportunities into consideration for making communication more successful. At the end of the day that’s what this is all about – we’re selling products. As to whether we would solely rely on a given piece of research, that’s open to debate. Commercials are already focus-group tested, it’s a norm in the industry. But do you always go with the one that tests the highest? No – because there are errors in focus groups. One person dominates the conversation. The human factor comes into play. It isn’t an exact science. So there’s always going to be a debate, and there’s always going to be a judgment call at the end of the day.
Reese: You’ve worked with some pretty famous musicians. Can you talk about that experience? What was that like? And how do you decide that a particular artist is right for a brand?
Aaron: In essence you’re trying to align demographics – this artist has the same following as this brand. Sometimes a brand has a very logical partnership with a musician, something synergistic. It’s a fascinating process to be around.
Reese: Last question. To use a music term, how do you know when you have a hit? Is there a piece of work you’ve done that you knew was the equivalent of a number one?
Aaron: I think when you first come up with a specific idea, it tends to be a very quiet moment. Because at that point you have no idea what impact it’s going to have. You might have that “aha” feeling where you think: “This is cool, this is different.” But in our business, everything should be different. So if it does go on to have a big impact, that’s a very proud moment, because you realize you’ve created something people have chosen to consume.
"A picture can be powerful: let’s say picture of starving children in Africa. But when you add music, it becomes so much more powerful, so much more engaging."
Reese: But was there an example when you just “knew”, right there and then, that something would work?
Aaron: I don’t think so, not really. Years ago I was involved in the creation of the BMW online film series (“The Hire”), which had a significant impact because it was one of the first campaigns where long-form film content was broadcast on the internet, as its sole means of distribution. With celebrity filmmakers and actors. But at the time I don’t think we knew exactly how influential it was going to be. We only saw that in retrospect. I think it’s always good to be optimistic. But cautiously optimistic – not overly optimistic.
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