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Why BBDO and Simon Le Bon are unpicking the creative process to put music at its heart

Simon Le Bon on creating commercial music / Julian Hanford

After creating a string of successful ads soundtracked by Simon Le Bon’s Syn, BBDO Asia cemented a partnership with the commercial music studio aiming to alleviate creatives’ proclivity to think of music as an afterthought.

For the agency, it’s a unique proposition that enables its clients to connect with consumer emotions on a higher level; for Le Bon, it’s an opportunity to musically unclip his wings from Duran Duran.

Syn, the creative commercial music agency founded in Tokyo by Le Bon, his wife Yasmin and producer Nick Wood, inked a deal with BBDO Asia in January this year. The partnership sees the musical trio produce and record creative work within the agency’s in-house music studio in Beijing, however Le Bon and Wood have quietly been working on commercial music together for years – since, in fact, the Duran Duran front man was inspired to write a song on the 1985-86 Whitbread Round the World yacht race that ended up on a documentary soundtrack.

“[Commercial music] was completely different from what I did with the band,” Le Bon told The Drum. “Not just the commercial aspect of it but being able to play the right music and play songs that I would never have been able to record because they were so out there.

“They were non-commercial in a pop sense but they became commercial because they got associated with advertising projects and TV shows. To me it was just that opportunity to have a completely different approach to work. [As an artist] you get forced into playing a role, you get forced into a box and as soon as you realise it, all you want to do your whole life is get out of that box.”

It was "a bit of a mental project" that first brought Syn together with BBDO, according to Arthur Tsang, chief creative officer of the agency’s Mars business in Shanghai.

“We were trying to recreate the classic jazz song Sway in Chinese and set it into a musical form for Dove Chocolate,” he recalled. “We sold it into the clients but then thought: ‘Who the hell could do this?’

“I’d met Nick a few weeks beforehand and said: ‘Let’s try’. As soon as we got into it, what I really appreciated about working with Nick is the spirit of nothing sonically is impossible.”

Dove was followed up with work for Mercedes Benz – again, in China. The success of the two ads got Tsang, himself coming from a musical background, re-examining the way the agency looked at soundtracking creative work. “We started thinking that if we can put music much earlier in the creative process we can start selling our clients on music before we even get to production,” he explained.

“Too often we get to the stage where we shoot a big film, get to the edit stage, and no-one’s even though about music and the director just puts a reference piece on…"

“And everyone falls in love with the reference piece!” Le Bon interjected. “And you can’t use it because you can’t buy the rights for it, or it’s actually the wrong piece anyway and you only fell in love with it because it’s there.”

Tsang believes this approach – one of in-housing music production supported by musical collaboration – could work for the entire industry, not just for creatives in China or Asia.

“We’ve kind of proven that it’s working now, [and we’re talking about] how we start exporting to other places,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a cultural issue at all. The way media’s going now … agencies need to get more involved in production. Most agencies are looking at video, it’s a logical next step to do audio and it’s a logical step to get closer to do the ‘doing’ of ideas rather than just thinking about them.”

Wood added that the weight both parties put on the collaborative aspect of the deal means the resulting creative is stronger and more likely to hit the brief. “The language of music is so complex – it’s a very challenging thing for us to interpret and a very challenging thing for creatives to express,” he said. “But the more we know each other, the easier it is to have a better understanding and get the results

“I really applaud BBDO’s thinking to bring that in-house because [music] really is always an afterthought and if we can start the process at the conceptual stage, it really gives us an opportunity to do some really amazing creative musical collaborations.”

Crucially, the partnership is underlined with an understanding and respect of music’s power, a fact that Le Bon has lived his life by. He said: “I think music’s one of those things that’s in everybody. It’s in everybody’s psyche, it’s in the back of people’s minds all the time.

“So if you can key into those subconscious levels then it helps open the door into people’s minds. And I think that’s what good music in advertising does – it clears the way for the idea to move through it.”

“There’s also this obsession in advertising around visual,” added Tsang “I think we get so laser focused on that, that we kind of forget that music and sound are such powerful things. Music’s always all around and…being able to be consciously manipulating and controlling what people are hearing is actually a really important tool to influence emotion.

“It’s like that old saying: you can close your eyes but you can’t shut your ears.”

Photography by Julian Hanford, shot at Cannes Lions with permission from Adform and DYNA Yacht Charter.

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Katie Deighton

Katie Deighton is The Drum’s senior reporter - creative and video based in London. She produces, films, presents and edits the title’s editorial video output, including series such as On The Scene, Ad Breakers and Why I Left Advertising, and manages its coverage of the creative sector. She also reports on the intersection between politics and marketing, as well as the third sector and fashion.

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