101 Great Minds on
Music, Brands and Behavior



Worldwide Creative Director at WPP


“The online space is so cluttered and ugly.
The obvious goal is to create something so beautiful or arresting that people will seek it out and give it space.
Music is a critical tool in that endeavor.”

 John O`Keeffe, Worldwide Creative Director at WPP

O‘Keeff e is one of the most distinguished creative directors in Britain with a reputation for inspiring original, inventive work. He began his advertising career at Saatchi & Saatchi in 1984, winning awards on accounts as diverse as NSPCC, Swan Lager and British Airways, before joining BBH in London in 1990, where he continued producing award-winning work for Audi, One2One and Levi’s. During his tenure as Executive Creative Director at BBH (appointed in 2000), the agency won 21 Agency of the Year Awards, and O’Keeff e himself was named Campaign magazine‘s Creative Director of the Year twice running. As Worldwide Creative Director of WPP (since September 2008), O’Keeff e is the creative head of a large agency network with about 3000 offices in 111 countries.

Reese: John, thank you for taking the time for this interview. So let‘s dive right in. How important is music in building a brand?

Google is a very famous brand. I’m not aware of it having any particular signature tune. There are many other famous brands that one might describe as strong silent types. But many have used music very effectively and, when used well, it is certainly a powerful
tool. One thinks of British Airways’ use of Delibe‘s Flower Duet over many years. It has an ability to confer on BA an ineffable sense of serenity and class; one that that pages of poetry could not convey. In that sense music is a pretty miraculous medium.

Reese: How important is music for you personally and for your work?

It can make or break a film. Acting that seems wooden when viewed with one piece of music, can be transformed by a different piece. The whole emotional experience of a film depends on the right soundtrack.

Reese: Considering the emotional effect music can have on people, do you think the right choice of music can change consumer behavior?

O’Keeffe: Advertising is there to cause an effect. Music is fundamental to that.

Reese: A lot of brands are “mute,“ they disappear once you look away. Do you believe a brand should be recognizable by sound only?

O’Keeffe: Not necessarily. The jingle, or sting, has its place but, for every successful one, there are probably ten that get on your nerves.

Reese: That‘s true. A mnemonic isn‘t always the answer. But audio branding is so much more than just an audio logo, or a jingle. It can be a certain style of music a brand is associated with, or the voice-over a brand uses. Considering that a lot of brands are very disciplined in their verbal and visual communication, but very arbitrary when it comes to their audio behavior: Do you believe audio should be treated with the same discipline as visual and verbal branding? Should brands have an audio style guide – just like they have a visual style guide?

O’Keeffe: My old friend and colleague Russell Ramsey always said that, for a piece of advertising to be great, every aspect of it must be great. It follows then that, of course, the audio side of advertising deserves the same consideration as any other aspect.

Reese: If you look back at your career so far, can you share your most memorable experience with music and how it influenced your work?

O’Keeffe: We put a Clash track on a Levis ad about ten years after they split up. It was the only Number One they ever had.

Reese: We as audio branding strategists find that one of our biggest problems is that it‘s a very young discipline and that a lot of people don‘t really know what it entails and what it can achieve for a brand. Is audio brand design part of your conversation when talking to a client about brand communication?

O’Keeffe: I doubt I’ve ever uttered the phrase “audio brand design,” but I will try to weave it in from now on.

Reese: Great – we‘re off to a good start! (Laughs). Where do you see the greatest challenge in finding a brand’s voice?

O’Keeffe: Getting all interested parties at the outset to accept the need for the brand to have its own unique identity, or voice: What does this brand stand for? I know Ford is about “Going Further:” I know Dove is all about women’s self-esteem: I can’t say the same for every brand I work with.

Reese: That‘s true. If a brand doesn‘t know what it stands for, its core purpose, then you don‘t have much to work with. Back to music in branding: What’s your current decision-making process involving music? Is there anything that has worked for you particularly well in the past? Judging from my years of working as a composer in the industry, a lot of creatives struggle with figuring out what it is they‘re looking for.

O’Keeffe: I don’t have a specific process. These things evolve as the production progresses. People make suggestions if the creatives involved haven’t got a fixed viewpoint and usually the right piece of music is obvious to all concerned. Usually, but not always.

Reese: How do you communicate music when briefing a music partner – composers, music production companies, music supervisors, publishers, and so on? How do you get across what you‘re looking for?

O’Keeffe: I often reference other pieces of music (that we can’t afford) and say, do something like that. But if the composer is someone with a strong point of view who wants to “try something” as the scary phrase has it: I’m up for that if there’s time and budget.

Reese: What’s your evaluation process? Do you test audio assets used in your brand communication?

O’Keeffe: I’m sure all sorts of tests are carried out, although not by me. Music is surely the simplest decision. It either works instantly or it’ll never work. That’s the way I see it anyway.

Reese: Let‘s talk about the value of music and cost control. How do you determine how much you are willing to pay for music – licensed or scored?

O’Keeffe: Not my job. But I’d argue for a great piece of music and hope the client agreed that it was worth paying for.

Reese: There are a lot of great audio brands out there. Is there a particular brand that you admire in their use of audio in their brand communication?

O’Keeffe: Levi‘s, back in the day, elevated music from merely a necessary background soundtrack to essentially the most eloquent ‘voice-over’ ever on advertising. Many have tried to imitate it since, none has succeeded.

Reese: Do you see a shift in how important music is becoming in your brand communication?

O’Keeffe: I think insofar as there is increasingly a need for advertising to work across geographies, music is as close as we have got to a universal language.

Reese: Where do you see the challenges and opportunities when working with music in a branded social network environment?

O’Keeffe: People seem afraid to say it but the online space is so cluttered, and so ugly. Someone once said of the digital revolution that we were leaving behind the age of interruption and entering the age of engagement. You could have fooled me! It’s often very noisy
– both aurally and visually – and just a mess on the screen. The obvious goal is to create something so beautiful or arresting that people will seek it out and give it space. Music is a critical tool in that endeavour. 

Reese: What does the audio branding of the future look like?

O’Keeffe: Neither you nor I know.  

Reese: What does a big idea feel like? Do you recognize it immediately when it arrives?

O’Keeffe: Yes.

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