great minds on music: an interview with nick law

It all began as a simple idea: sitting down face-to-face with some of the best minds in the world of advertising, asking for their perspectives on the relationship of music and sound to brands and marketing.

“I don’t think many companies are using sound in as sophisticated of a way as they could be.” – Nick Law

So, armed with a laptop and a digital recorder, Uli Reese, President of iV2, traveled the world in pursuit of some of the top names in the business of advertising. Two years and dozens of interviews later, we’ve edited and compiled his conversations with these innovative thinkers into a series we’ve dubbed “Great Minds on Music.”


Reese: How important is sound to a brand?

Law: I think sound is important, and music is important in certain contexts. When I grew up in the advertising industry, before the networked age, it was easy for creative directors to have abstract maxims that rang 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 today. Another one of the maxims we hear from advertisers, mainly because the industry for many years was driven by 30 second TV spots, is: “It’s all about storytelling.” But now we have media that aren’t just 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 emotion 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 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. [That sound] is designed 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.

Law: In advertising we used to have very singular contexts 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. Years later, we instantly recall the context of when we first heard them.

Law: You know, 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, and it’s taken us a while to catch up.

Reese: Do you think there are still unexplored possibilities?

Law: I think sound as branding is incredibly important when it comes to these behaviors that I was talking about. Content now so often has an interface in front of it. So our relationship with content is through interface, and interfaces work better when they’re visceral. 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 sound in as sophisticated of a way as they could be.

Reese: How much is audio branding a part of your conversation with a new 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? That whole experience is delivered with sight, sound, motion. Music, or sound, is a really important part of that. It provides a narrative engine.

Reese: Let’s shift gears for a moment. I always like asking about experiences with “great ideas.” How do you feel when you have a great idea? Do 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. 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’re 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, you have to suddenly design a system of behavior. You might have some ideas that could inspire someone who has more expertise in that area. We have a problem in our industry where we think that creativity is one flavor.

Reese: I play piano. When I went to study composition in Los Angeles, 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, and thinking in the context you just described, storytelling is the “piano” for traditional creatives. They want everything to be played through that prism or that filter, and it limits them. I think that’s a lesson that all creative people could learn.

Uli interviewed Nick at the R/GA headquarters in New York. Nick Law is EVP, CCO of R/GA North America, where his work has won numerous international awards and has been widely published in the United States, the United Kingdom and Asia-Pacific. Prior to joining R/GA, Nick clocked twenty years of experience across multiple marketing disciplines. He honed his advertising and interactive skills working here in the US for FGI and across the pond at DMB&B in London. In turn, his design sensibility was developed with stints as senior designer at Diefenbach Elkins (now FutureBrand) in New York and at Pentagram, London. In 2009, R/GA was named AdWeek’s Digital Agency of the Decade.

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