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What should creatives be listening out for when choosing audio for an ad?


By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

August 15, 2023 | 10 min read

Video and audio spots can find success through smart sound design choices. Or fail outright if they’re out of tune with the audience and the brief.

recording studio

What should creatives consider when choosing audio or sound for an ad? / Unsplash

If nothing else, Twitter is still good for weird fan accounts, like the UKADs account, which posts ads from the last century. There are a lot of strange-looking foods. There are a lot of TV ads for bitter. And a lot of jingles.

Today’s advertising industry is a bit more subtle in its sound design choices (there aren’t as many dance sequences staged in car showrooms, either – our loss). But video work and audio ads still live and die on the quality of those choices. So, we asked agency experts from across the industry to explain how they decide which sound or piece of music to employ.

How do you solve a problem like... picking the right piece of music?

Becky Wixon, creative strategist and producer at MassiveMusic: “Context is everything. It can either amplify a message or crush it. Nothing contextualizes communications like music. From the intent in a lyric to the space between a beat, music invisibly carries information that reflects our human experience. Cue sonic branding – the process of translating feeling and personality into sound. In an ever more audio-enabled world, meaningfully matching sound to a message has never been more important. Otherwise, brands risk being on mute, or worse, playing the soundtrack to another movie. When matched right, music choices can synergize brand messaging, elevating media content to become unforgettable.”

Hywel Evans, music supervisor, BBH London: “The phrase ‘the right piece of music’ can suffocate a music brief. It implies singular, objective, unambiguous perfection. It invites frustration and panic when it proves elusive. Resist the temptation to chase that phantom. Start with ‘How do we want this to make us feel?” Explore different routes through prompts about tempo, instrumentation, genre, lyrics, era, style, and mood. Accept that there will be a range of strongly held opinions and equally valid options. But the conversation then becomes, 'Which of these options makes the work better?’ Remember that music is subjective. Make time for it. And there are ALWAYS options.”

Algy Sharman, chief creative officer, Joint: “Choosing the right music for an ad is not only one of the most important decisions you can make in the production process but also one of the most subjective. How do you convince a client that the right answer is hip-hop when the client hates hip-hop answer lies, of course, in the idea. If you stick closely to that, you untether yourself from subjectivity and start judging the track on whether it answers the brief. When we chose Nicky Minaj’s ‘Feeling Myself’ for our Amazon Prime Rapunzel spot (above), it was absolutely right for the rebellious Rapunzel, and it clearly had the attitude that talked to her change in state. Now you couldn’t imagine the ad with anything else.”

Will McCartney, strategist at Wunderman Thompson UK: “British neurologist Oliver Sacks once said, 'Music evokes emotion, and emotion can bring with it memory.' Neuro-Insight research discovered that when music and visuals sync up well, our brains generate a 14% higher memory-encoding response. Resultantly, achieving a parallel between visual and sonic themes should be sacrosanct in marketing. When answering our briefs, music offers a chance to embolden brand consistency and fortify the message we are trying to convey. The sounds we select should match the personality of the brand, be appealing to the target audience and should reinforce the consumer mindsets that we set out to achieve in our original briefs.”

Ian Heartfield, founder/chief creative officer, New Commercial Arts: “You need to ask yourself, is the music going to form part of the overall idea, or is it going to be used to create a feeling? In our Halifax work, music was an important driver for the campaign, and as there was no dialogue, we could go for relevant lyrics to help tell a story. Hence ‘Stand by Me’ by Oasis. When it came to our brand relaunch film for Nando’s ‘This Must be the Place’, the music needed to play second fiddle to the dialogue. In our next Alzheimer’s film, the sound design will play a major role in the production as we are going to use it to emphasize the disorienting effects of dementia.”

Katherine Schmidt, associate creative director, Hanson Dodge: “The first thing we consider is the overall tone of the creative. The brief often dictates how we want the spot to feel from a messaging perspective, so the audio should reinforce that feeling in a way that isn’t distracting. For example, recent work for Now was meant to give the audience an instant dopamine hit, so the music was upbeat and dance-worthy (which also served as a distinctive asset in the vitamins and supplements category). And sometimes, you’re lucky enough to hear a track out in the wild that inspires the creative. That certainly makes it easy!”

Darren Foldes, managing director and executive producer, Sibling Rivalry: “The breakout pieces for me have that perfectly mixed blend of diegetic sounds and the ideal song choice. On occasion, the song takes over and stops you in your tracks, like the electronic disco of Midnight Magic’s ‘Beam Me Up’ in those Häagen-Dazs ads. Sometimes the musical choice and the visuals are so linked that the marriage becomes the perfect symphony, seen in Apple’s 'Bounce' for AirPods. The Pilooski edit of Frankie Valli’s 'Beggin’ used in Adidas’ ‘House Party' is such a perfect juxtaposition that it had an immediate impact on culture and the club scene. It’s important to partner as early in the process as possible with people with amazing instincts and taste – a strong musical recommendation up front can inspire once latent visual ideas.

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William Rauscher, verbal director, Wolff Olins: “Making the right selection of audio or music is like DJing because experiencing music is about context: an alchemy of the moment, place, vibe, and audience. Choosing the right sound means being a good listener. You have to pay attention to how the sounds make you feel. And it’s about reading music like a text: understanding the emotional cues and the cultural signifiers. Does a saxophone today signify soulfulness, or is it cringe? And what kind of union are you looking for between the audio and the creative? Should they be identical twins? Or a surprising marriage of opposites?”

Aleah Morrison-Basu, managing director, Zelig Sound: “Sound does a lot of emotional lifting and memory triggering, so should be considered a fundamental part of the creative and concept. How do you solve it? Get help from talented people as early in the process as possible.”

Max De Lucia, co-founder of sound branding agency DLMDD: ”Thinking about ‘background sound’ or 'sound as a background element’ in advertising is totally the wrong place to start. The most famous earworms and soundtracks you remember are designed to do a very particular job - to make us think, feel and memorize. You don’t achieve any of that by being 'background'. If you want a brand sound to stick, it’s got to have punch, clarity and a singular message. Finding the million-dollar sauce for sound is a journey - you’ve got to follow the same brand principles as you would for every other part of your visual brand.”

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