101 Great Minds on
Music, Brands and Behavior
President, Creative Director at BETC Paris
“Music is a universal language. It‘s the only language that everybody can understand.”
Stéphane Xiberras, President, Creative Director, BETC Paris
Xiberras is the man bringing the “savoir faire“ and French touch to advertising. The son of a Maltese father and an Italian mother grew up in the South of France and started his advertising career as an intern in an agency called Ecom. He has been with BETC since 1999, and has been behind the agency‘ s work for Canal+ including award winning spots “The Closet“ and “The Bear“.
Reese: So tell me – what’s your musical background?
Xiberras: I come from the South of France. But I’m not very French, because my father is Maltese and my mother is Italian. I lived in Aix-en-Provence and started experimenting with music – I was programming some of the early machines, the first Fairlights and all these old gizmos, you know? Next came Paris, as a student. No sun, no girls, no money. So: advertising. I suspect I got the idea from the TV show Bewitched. The guy worked in advertising and his wife was a witch. In my dream I wanted to be like him, with a beautiful witch as a wife. But it was a lie, because at the end, still no girl, still no
money. But… I did things.
Reese: It worked out all right. Why the obsession with animals, by the way?
Xiberras: Oh, it’s like La Fontaine – parables. If you’re trying to say something about humans, it’s often easier to say it with animals. If you want to make a point about your mother, maybe you compare her to a squirrel… It’s not crystal clear, right?
Reese: No, no, I get it. So let’s turn to music. Can it change behavior? In advertising?
Xiberras: Yeah. It’s the key. If you’re talking about a universal language, music is that – it’s the only language that everybody can understand. BETC was the first agency in France to bet on music. If you look at the Evian ads, they’re not about babies, they’re about music.
Reese: So how important is music, or audio, in brand-building? Is there a percentage?
Xiberras: I would say 50-50. Even when you’re looking at the screen, music is everywhere. It’s soundwaves, it’s energy.
Reese: At what point in a project do you think about music?
Xiberras: At the beginning. Because when you’re writing something, you’re doing it with the music, to have the mood, the energy, or to feel sadness, or a particular emotion. I’m gonna show you a sneak preview of something. I made a film for the French national lottery,
and my first idea was about the music, which was (sings) “Booorn to be wiiild.” But “Born To Be Wild” is about Vietnam, it’s a little bit clichéd, so I made this. (Shows an ad with a mariachi version of Born To Be Wild).
Reese (laughing): How did you make that connection? How did you come up with that?
Xiberras (also laughing): I don’t know!
Reese: Come on… When we see something like that, it all looks like some kind of happy accident. But what we all want to know is – how did you get there?
Xiberras: I don’t have a recipe. Look at this film. I made it with Tom Kuntz. The guy is a genius, but at the end of the day, you see the film without the music and it’s quite ordinary. With “Born To Be Wild” by the big Mexican orchestra, it’s completely crazy. It’s about freedom and travelling and forgetting everything. It’s a trip. I wanted to show you that because it’s about music and the fun you can bring to people with it. Because it’s not really selling the lottery. it’s selling the idea that anything is possible. That you can discover a new hope, a new
Reese: So what’s the indicator that an idea is great? Is there something in you that says: “You know what – we need exactly that.”
Xiberras: If you can pitch the idea to your mother or your child in one sentence, it’s a good sign.
Xiberras: Simplicity is a good thing. Then, it’s the quality of the execution. Everything has to be perfect: every image, every sound. The aim is to get to “Oh, I love this thing – can I watch it again, please?” When you see “The Bear” for the fi rst time, you want to see it again.
Reese: I just watched it three times.
Xiberras: And then you want to share it – you love it, you share it. So: simplicity and perfection in the execution. But even that’s not the entire recipe. There’s also intuition.
Reese: What are your frustrations? When you’re communicating what you want but can’t seem to get it?
Xiberras: I know the industry very well, so I know when it’s just a job. I choose my fights. But sometimes you have to fight. Ideas have a lot of enemies. You hear a great idea, and three months later you see some TVC or digital gizmo and you think, “What happened? Our
great idea ended up as THAT?” “Oh, it was the client, or the director, or my mother, you know…” No, I don’t know! You had a good idea and you didn’t protect it.
Reese: Your job is to keep good ideas safe, like guarding
some kind of diamond?
Xiberras: Of course, of course! And if I think you’ve ruined
an idea, I’ll tell you. It’s not a democracy here. I’m paid to have an opinion.
Reese: Do you see a shift in how important music is becoming? Is it more important or less?
Xiberras: More important. When you look at the music industry, it’s amazing. They have a power our industry doesn’t have any more, in times of image and attractiveness.
Reese: I mean when you look at music in TV commercials, do you see a change there?
Xiberras: Yeah. It’s funny because we were talking about Volvo, “Epic Split”. The music is perfect. Half of the power of that film is based on the music.
Reese: Your films “Bear” and “Closet” were post-scored, if I understand it, like Hollywood movies. It makes me think of Spielberg and John Williams, who have a kind of marriage. They don’t even have to communicate about music any more. Do you have a marriage like that, with a composer…?
Xiberras: No, no.
Reese: Because I know that communicating music can be a problem for a lot of people.
Xiberras: It’s very diffi cult to talk about music – almost impossible. But you should talk about colors, about what you want to feel, rather than saying you want cellos or a reverberation at this point. You have to explain the emotion you want to feel, thanks to the music. But only a musician can explain that to a musician.
Reese: Which is kind of unfair because of your background as a musician. But for other creatives it can be like trying to talk Japanese. They feel at a loss.
Xiberras: Right, absolutely. It’s the same thing for the editing: it’s about beat, it’s about rhythm. You either get it or you don’t.
Reese: Most brands are very disciplined visually but their audio is arbitrary. Do you think they should be as disciplined in their audio communication as they are visually?
Xiberras: No. For me it’s absolutely the contrary. A big brand should have a platform idea – “I stand for good, or quality, or surprise”, or whatever – but the executions should be different. For instance, I’m working for Ubisoft, who make video games, and we have to talk to different targets. In my opinion we have to defend the same idea but in different ways. A brand should be rich and innovative, especially in music. Can you imagine having the same music for ten years? So boring.
Reese: What about audio logos?
Xiberras: It can work, but… nah. Not my thing. For me it dates back to the fifties, to radio, when you needed that impact. But if you take my daughter, she’s 14, she doesn’t care about jingles. She wants something to share; great ideas; something new.
Reese: I can see our time is almost up. But this has been great.
Xiberras: Thanks to you. Listen, next time we can talk about Star Trek. I heard you worked on that, right? You know Picard is one of my heroes?
Reese: I met Patrick Stuart many times. I even met Gene Roddenberry, just before he died. You know, the creator of Star Trek?
Xiberras: Of course, of course.
Reese: I studied film scoring and conducting in Los Angeles and one of my lecturers was a composer on the show, Ron Jones. He gave a lecture – and I talked to him after it and I said, “Can I please come to a Star Trek session?” We started chatting and I told him I originally wanted to be a tennis pro, back in Germany, but I gave it up when I was trashed by an unknown ten-year-old called Boris Becker…
Xiberras (laughing): Really, that’s incredible!
A brand should be rich and innovative, especially in music. Can you imagine having the same music for ten years? So boring.
Reese: Jones loved that story. He told me he was a tennis nut and invited me to play with him. After we played he said: “Do you want to work for me?” I was like, “What d’you mean?” He said: “Do you want to work for me, as an orchestrator? Except you also have to play tennis with me three times a week, for two hours in the morning.” I was absolutely speechless. So that was my first job. I was working on the show by the age of 21.
Xiberras: That’s destiny. To boldly go where no-one has gone before!
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