101 Great Minds on
Music, Brands and Behavior
Global Chief Creative Officer at R/GA
“Nothing evokes emotions so viscerally as music."
Nick Law, Global Chief Creative Officer, R/GA, New York
Beginning his career as a designer in Sydney, Law continued as an advertising art director in London, and transitioned to digital in the late 90’s after moving to New York. As Global CCO at R/GA, Law leads an increasingly diverse group of creatives that include interaction designers and creative technologists. Since joining in 2001, Law has worked with clients such as Nike, Beats by Dre, HBO, L’Oréal and Google, and R/GA has become one of the most awarded agencies in the world. Adweek named R/GA Digital Agency of the decade and Nike+ as campaign of the decade. Law has been on every major award show jury and has twice been named in the Creativity 50, a list of the world’s most influential creative people. He is recognized as an industry
thought leader and has been published globally.
Reese: Wow... we’ll all have different experiences to the same film.
Law: I think sound is important, and music is important in certain contexts. The big change that‘s happened since the world became networked is that the way we market to people has been added to. When I grew up in the advertising industry, before the networked age, it was easy for creative directors to have abstract maxims, and for them to ring true. The classic was “less is more.“ If you‘re creating a piece of print communication, or even a thirty second spot, that‘s sort of true: you want people to walk away from that communication with a very concise idea or feeling. But that’s not the only way marketers work anymore. Another one of the maxims we hear from advertisers, mainly because the industry for many years was driven by thirty-second TV spots, is: “It‘s all about storytelling.“ But now we have media that are not about storytelling, but about frameworks of behavior. I‘m holding an iPhone here, and when I turn it on and off it makes a very specific sound. Same when I send an email. There‘s an audio layer to this brand that has nothing to do with storytelling and everything to do making functionality apparent. It serves not just to make me feel something about the brand, but to make me understand how the brand is behaving.
Reese: What about music?
Law: We know the advantage music has in the storytelling space, because nothing evokes emotions so viscerally as music. But when you look at our relationship with the networked world, it’s basically about our relationship with a bunch of systems. Our relationship with writing is based on our understanding of the alphabet as a system: in fact, we understand the system so well that it becomes invisible. The mistake interactive agencies make is that they think that social media by itself is interesting. It‘s not! It‘s only interesting if it‘s delivering something beautiful. Music has a great advantage in these new frameworks because we all understand music as a system. [iPhone makes text noise.] There we go, there‘s a great example of sonic branding, right?
Reese: It‘s not an accident.
Law: No, exactly. It‘s designed to for you to understand a behavior. I was in a Microsoft meeting last week, where a phone rang, and everyone knew it was an iPhone. And they started to go “boo, hiss!” It was funny because it was just a sound they were reacting to. But they reacted to it in such a visceral way. Going back to the point, these new systems, new frameworks of behavior keep cropping up every six months or so now. So what you want to deliver through those systems are things that people don‘t have to decode, because they‘ve been living with them as a species for so long that they‘re invisible. And music is the best example of that, right? Even more so than language, because language is specific to the cultural context.
Reese: Before we could write anything down, we would transfer knowledge to the next generation by singing around the campfire. If you survived a snake bite, and you wanted to come back and tell us what herbs you put on the would, it would be put into song.
Law: In advertising we used to have very singular context within which we mediated between companies and the audience: interruption. In a newspaper, on TV, you bought space in other people‘s content and you interrupted people. Now there are countless contexts: search, aggregations, social media applications… And these contexts keep colliding with each other. Let’s take Amazon, where the context is one of transaction. As soon as I have Amazon on a cell phone, and that cell phone is enabled with GPS, it collides with location. Now, transaction and location become a new context altogether. There are so many different contexts now that we can‘t just look at what we do through the prism of craft.
Reese: The power of music is very contextual, too.
Law: Absolutely. Wieden & Kennedy always finds beautiful music for the Nike spots. There‘s one called Fate. When I think of that spot, the thing that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up is the music.
Reese: It multiplies your visual experience.
Law: Yeah, but I‘m not sure that the same music, delivered when I’m looking at my cell phone while I‘m waiting for an elevator is going to have the same effect, because the context is going to be different. So the music has to be right for the specific context.
Reese: When, where and why.
Law: Yeah, exactly. And this is the thing that I think our industry is taking the longest to recognize. Most of the people in advertising got into it ten, twenty years ago, when it was a sort of proxy for Hollywood: it was a great place to tell filmic stories. But I think there are many creative opportunities that are hamstrung by our inability to step out of our craft and look at all of these contexts. Going back to music, I think music is actually a perfect language for multiple contexts.
Reese: We have a tremendous ability to remember music. Songs from our adolescence make a deep emotional connection: it becomes instant recall. It‘s in RAM for the rest of your life.
Law: One of the things that prevented music from being an important component of the web in the early days was that the initial context of the web was information. Now the web has become so much more than that. We entertain ourselves on the web, we use applications – and we listen to music. At the beginning, the web was a difficult media to use music in. That‘s all changed, but it’s taken us a while to catch up.
Reese: Do you think there are still unexplored possibilities?
Law: Sound as branding is incredibly important when it comes to these behaviors that I was talking about. Content now so often how has an interface in front of it. So our relationship with content is through interface, and interfaces work better when they‘re visceral. And that‘s why Apple has taken the time to brand all of these sounds, these functional sounds. I don‘t think many companies are using that in as sophisticated a way as they should be.
Reese: It‘s also a matter of our transmission systems. The way we experience audio today on a phone today is better than twenty years ago on a regular TV…. How much is audio branding a part of your conversation with a new client or existing client? Is it part of the conversation?
Law: If you‘re looking at the storytelling side, then we all know the power of music to drive the emotion of a story. Ten years ago a classic branding agency would have created a set of guidelines that gave clients the tools of typeface, color, shape, tone, and so on. What we are more interested in are guidelines around behaviors. How does the interface tell me before I even touch it what it’s going to do? Once I touch it, how does it delight me in getting me where I‘m going? And that whole experience is delivered with sight, sound, motion. And music, or sound, is a really important part of that. It provides a narrative engine.
"One of the things that prevented music from being an important component of the web in the early days was that the initial context of the web was information. Now the web has become so much more than that. We entertain ourselves on the web, we use applications – and we listen to music.
Reese: What’s really interesting for me to know is, how did you feel when you had a great idea? Did you recognize it at that moment?
Law: We were recently voted digital agency of the decade, and Nike+ was voted digital campaign of the decade. And because it’s a system of behavior, it wasn‘t one idea. It was a lot of ideas: it was Nike, it was Apple, it was us, it was a very collaborative and incremental sort of creation. So, it wasn‘t like a bolt of lightning hit any of the participants.
Reese: Collaboration is more important than ever.
Law: I think it‘s really important, because we sort of divide our world into storytelling and systematic design. It‘s important that we are able to do both, but it‘s also important to realize that it‘s different ways of thinking. Creative people are an accumulation of their habits. You get good at something after you‘ve been doing it for ten years, right? But that creates pathways in your brain, and it means that you have a sort of Pavlovian response to a problem. You come up with a great solution based on your experience, on your habits. That doesn‘t mean that just because you‘re creative director at an agency that you have to suddenly design a system of behavior. You might have some ideas that could spur someone else who‘s expertise that is. But we have a problem in our industry where we think that creativity is one flavor.
Reese: When I went to study composition in Los Angeles – and I’m a decent, OK piano player – the first thing that happened is that they said you need to get rid of your instrument. You need to start writing without the piano. You need to trust abstract thinking. Just because you‘re a great piano player, doesn’t mean you‘re a great composer. It doesn‘t work like that. As you were saying, it‘s a completely different craft.
Law: Going back to this transition our industry is going through, traditional creatives, their piano is storytelling. They want everything to be able to be played through that prism or that filter, and it limits them. I think that that‘s a lesson that all creative people could learn.
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