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Tom Goodwin: conducting the orchestra of advertising

By Tom Goodwin

November 21, 2018 | 7 min read

The creative process in advertising on a good day seems sufficiently magical and mysterious that it’s hard to understand. The more scrutiny you place on it, the more it seems rather inefficient, nebulous, chaotic and random. At times when we think AI may do a better job when we think data trumps creativity when we think the message and the medium can be assessed separately, it’s time to work harder to understand what’s going on. To my mind, our collective need to connect with people and garner attention is like making and writing music.

Orchestra image

Conducting the orchestra that is advertising according to Tom Goodwin

If we as an industry are an orchestra then the lyricists would the creative agencies. They understand the zeitgeist of the time, they find ways to resonate with people consciously, to capture a spirit and meaning and connect with people. Lyrics without a score to support them isn’t music, much like advertising without media spend or distribution is art.

The media agencies are the music writers. They understand the power of different instruments, the best arrangements, how campaigns should build and then pause. They get the importance of tempo, the need to have silence, texture, depth, and drama. They create the vessel into which the lyrics largely fill. Media like music is emotionally driven but is based on more science than is readily apparent. Music is inherently scientific, the importance of resonant frequencies, the maths of the golden mean, the Fibonacci sequence, Pythagorean tuning. The very best music follows rules and structure, it’s a combination of algorithmic patterns and human flair.

The analogy continues. Consumers are the audience, how much they notice, love and relate to the overall song is essential. They don’t know why they like it, or what they like about it, they won’t separate out elements, they just know what works. The client is the record label, they know what they need, will fund the project and will ensure an environment in which the best music can be made happens, but ideally, they’d not start playing the flute or asking for lyrics to be inserted.

If you assume this analogy isn’t terrible, a few things come to mind.

Creative and media have to come together

The lyrics and the music are inseparable. In an ideal world, one person would do both but that’s a rare skill set. It’s, of course, easier to write the lyrics and then the score, or write the score and find the words, but we all know in reality we need a jam session and for the two elements to be continually refined together. The fact we now have more instruments than ever, that these new instruments are new and specific, doesn’t make it any more right that these processes should be separated out, in fact, it’s clearly the opposite. Why media agencies and creative agencies can just about be explained historically but makes less and less sense by the day.

Data is a guide but empathy and creativity win

If you were to analyze every single loved song and scan in key data. You’d find that the very best songs are on average perhaps three mins 30 seconds long, they are 116 beats per minute, they use the word love 12 times, start on middle C and have five sharp notes, three violins, one echo effect, three verses and 203 words. Using this data a guide to good music is indescribably bad. The data spans hip-hop and classical and other genres and is so widely varied that the averages have become meaningless. Yet, even if we were to filter it to a specific genre it’s just not how to write a good tune. There are principles to what makes good music, chords, repetition, rhyme, but these are rules to be broken. You can only write and construct based on talent, the feeling of empathy and creativity. Data may help shape, but it’s likely to only provide reassurance to those who are not musically talented to help them objectively support decisions the others could make anyway.

Attribution is a fool's errand

Music like an ad campaign is consumed in its entirety. It spans time and morphs over it. You can’t assess any snapshot of time, you can’t attribute success to any specific elements. To say a mobile ad made someone buy a car is a stupid as saying it’s 4th D sharp in Bohemian Rhapsody is 100% responsible for making someone love it. There are no instruments that “make” a song, there are no lyrics that are guaranteed winners, all music like ads are the sum of their parts. Sometimes more instruments are better, sometimes simplicity is key, there are no rules except what works best in totality.

There is no such thing as digital

It is not the case that digital is like an electric instrument. The concept of digital spans changing consumer behaviors, the ability to make ads in new ways, the ability to microtarget, to create interactive units, to measure response rates. Digital isn’t an instrument, it’s the entire environment of record producers, electric keyboards, better microphones, newer sound recording programs, new editing software that absolutely make music better, but are far to disparate in nature to assign to one person or agency. Digital isn’t a thing it’s everything. The same is true for mobile. Mobile is a series of expectations, behaviors and possibilities brought to life by a rectangular digital screen we carry with us everywhere. It’s not a thing.

You can see from the above that to say that pianos, like TV is dead is very dumb. To say that we should double down on bass or treble is silly. We can argue that AI may write music soon, but it’s unlikely and the same is true for ads, it can just act as a lever to what we want to make. Like music, not everything has changed in advertising, we have new tools and instruments but long rooted principles while they manifest themselves differently are as valid as ever.

We need to accept that our industry has scientific principles but is directed by our hearts, felt in our bones, and perhaps retrospectively rationalized with our brains. We need to get better at understanding the instruments, being obsessed with culture and the audience, but be driven by passion. We can’t keep bolting on new things at the side and expect that autotune will make the song good, or an eigenharp will get press coverage, we have to focus on making a great piece of music.

And yes we need experts who can play the instruments, we need specialists who can best capture the moment, but above all else we need four things. Incredible innate skill and gut feel, the magical power of an idea that resonates, generalists who can oversee and bring different elements together from on high, and above all else, closer collaboration that ever from a better process, a better sense of the goal and more passion than ever.

Tom Goodwin is the head of innovation for Zenith Media

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