great minds on music : an interview with tom o’keefe

In this edition of our “Great Minds on Music” series, Uli Reese, President of iV2, catches up with Tom O’Keefe, Draftfcb Executive Creative Director, North America, at his office in Chicago. “Great Minds on Music” is a collection of interviews with some of the top names in the advertising industry, engaging them in conversations about music, audio and advertising.  If you’d like to read more from these innovative thinkers, selecting this link will aggregate all the interviews for easy viewing. 


Reese: What role does music play in your work as an advertising agency?  How important is it?

“…no matter how well you write a piece of dialog, or how well the visual elements come together, I think music is the thing that moves you the most” – Tom O’Keefe

O’Keefe: I think you can’t separate music from what we do as advertisers or as an agency. It’s always been part of the emotional context of a brand. It’s there to tap into your feelings – and hopefully get you to like a brand more because you’re affected by the music, whether you’re aware of that or not. There are times when you hear something and you’re like, “I love that music!” And other times where you’re not consciously aware of it, but it still moves you in a certain way. There was a classic era of jingles that stuck in your head, then we moved to an era where music is now probably more original, or at least about associating known songs, with brands. Now I’m hearing a lot about audio mnemonics and audio signatures and discussion about what brands sound like. Maybe that’s because the ubiquity of communication means you’ve got to be that much clearer about what your sound is.

Reese:  Can you talk a little bit about your process? When you’re creating a campaign, when and how does the music fit into the process?

O’Keefe: I think it should be from the start.  And unfortunately too often it’s looked at as an afterthought. You’ve gone through the idea, you’ve gone through some of the production process and then it’s suddenly: “Well, what’s the music going to be?” When really, music should be there from the beginning, because it helps you clarify the brand’s voice. I’ve done campaigns where music has been the driver from the beginning.  In fact, I’ve done the classic “when you don’t know what to say, sing it.” But even then we had to find the right vibe for the brand. I’m thinking of one in particular for, about ten years ago, called “The Sweater Men.” And they were singing the strategy, OK?  They were singing prices and sales and deliveries and toys and inventory. It was self-effacing, it had a sense of humor, it had this kind of quirky retro kind of a vibe and this was all a reflection of Amazon’s brand at the time.

Reese: There is a skill to matching the song with the brand, so it doesn’t sound forced.

O’Keefe: Which is why I think if you’re in advertising, you should know music. You should be able to bring your musical knowledge to the brands and the projects that you work on. We did another project for KFC about five years ago based around “old school cool.”  We wanted to hearken back to the days when it was all about getting together as a family and eating chicken.  At the same time, they wanted to be cool and progressive, and have a certain kind of edge moving forward.  We went back and looked at music that we felt represented the days when KFC was in everybody’s mindset. Then we tweaked it and remixed it, to bring in the moving forward part. We remixed Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” and that became KFC’s signature for about three or four years. I think classic rock or classic country would always be right for the brand, but it didn’t quite come together until we played with it. The consumer shouldn’t be aware of that. It should always feel organic and integral to the piece. You can tell the difference between soulful music and music that feels manufactured, or something that sounds…

Reese:  Robotic?

O’Keefe:  Robotic and generic.  When you get something that just nails you in the heart, you’re moved like nothing else can move you. I believe that about music. I think that no matter how well you write a piece of dialog, or how well the visual elements come together, I think music is the thing that moves you the most.  And if we understand that power, and capitalize on it, then we’re going to have work that resonates much more powerfully.

Reese:  How easy is it for you to communicate about music? Have there been times you’ve felt you were very successful in communicating what you needed in terms of music?

O’Keefe: I agree that communicating music is a difficult thing.  That’s partly why I said earlier that you should know your stuff when it comes to music. Because it helps you to communicate with a music house, or your client, in terms of what you’re trying to get to. It helps if you have someone who understands you; who can interpret what you’re looking for, with you giving clear directions but not putting them in a box. There’s a shorthand in how we’re able to talk about music. I can say, “We’re looking for something that feels like early Merle Haggard.”  And they’ll be like, “OK!” They’re not going to do an early Merle Haggard piece, but they’re going to know there’s a certain rawness and a lack of production value, or sizzle, that will make it feel organic.

Reese: You share a language, which makes you feel comfortable.

O’Keefe:  That’s right. Some people feel intimidated. I’m not a trained musician, I don’t know music.  So I can’t come in and say, “it’s such and such and it’s in the key of G.”  I can just say what I feel, and if I have to pound on the table, or dance, or sing, or throw a reference out, or look something up on YouTube, I will…What you said about partnerships is absolutely true. It seems like I always come back to the same one or two people, because they understand that shorthand.

Reese: You’ve talked a lot about authenticity, or soulfulness. I read something you said once: “You cannot separate creativity from accountability.”  I found that really interesting. How does music fit in to that? How do you measure the effectiveness of a piece of music?

O’Keefe:  I think when we say creativity and accountability, we mean the end product: that’s where we have to be accountable with what we do creatively. And I think that to try and quantify music is very difficult.  But the more you know about a brand, the more you know about its personality, the more you have the opportunity to do something right.  But it can’t feel like it was an analytical study. Music doesn’t work like that. Songwriters are forever trying to write hits. And they can write a song at 9 o’clock in the morning that wasn’t a hit, and at 9:30 they turn around and write a huge hit. You have to do it until you feel it, and I think in the case of music and how you quantify it. You have to do it until you feel like something is right for the brand. Let’s take it away from advertising and look at it in the music industry. A lot of people out there try to create music that will be a hit, based on a certain formula.  But the ones who break through are the ones who do it because they had the sheer talent and they had the unmistakable, irrefutable, soulfulness of a hit song. I think enabling a brand to attach themselves to the unique sound that is a hit is really what we’re trying to do.

Reese:  Would you hire a company that specialized in testing music? That tried to match music with brands?

O’Keefe: It would take a lot for me to want to go there. Ultimately, with music you know it when you feel it. I can imagine a scenario where I had three tracks in mind and I tested them on some consumers. And maybe there is merit in that, but it feels like just one more thing that takes away the art of what we do, you know? Advertising goes down that route a lot, but if it starts to feel too much that way, you’re going to lose that — as we talked about earlier — that soulfulness that makes work great.

Reese:  Do you believe that a brand should be identifiable with your eyes closed? 

O’Keefe:  It’s an interesting question…You know, when brands do that it always feels like it’s the signature at the end. It’s the exclamation point at the end of the communication. So whether I’m McDonald’s, or Intel, or anybody else, I sign off with a “brought to you by…”  I think if you’re going to try and find the musical DNA of your brand, you should figure out how to do it in way that doesn’t feel like another one of these mnemonic jingle type things.

Reese: You talked about hits earlier. In advertising, do you know when you’ve got a number one?

O’Keefe:  I think you know that it has potential, because you’re excited and moved by it. I think this would be the same with songwriters. When you conceive it (snaps fingers), it feels perfect. The rest is about great realization, luck, timing, all those other things that decide whether or not it’s going to be a decade defining song, or a song that fizzles out. You have to feel that sense of passion from the start. And then you have to hold on to that tiny spark when everyone else begins to pile in. I imagine that’s exactly how you feel when you write a great song.

Tom O’Keefe is Executive Creative Director of Draftfcb, North America.  Over the course of his 20 year career, Tom has developed bold and effective campaigns that influence pop culture. In his current role, he guides and supports the direction of Draftfcb’s North American work in addition to overseeing the creative product for major clients such as Yum! Brands. He is also one of the architects of Draftfcb’s “The 6.5 Seconds that Matter” positioning, which continues to gain attention from clients, the advertising community and outside the industry, having been featured in everything from Fast Company to a recent episode of The Simpsons. Tom has received every major creative award in advertising. In addition, he is a frequent judge and guest speaker at Cannes, Clios, Effies, as well as advertising schools across North America. An entrepreneur from a young age, his first venture was a boxing gym named “Firpo’s.” He built it in his parents’ garage while he was still in high school, charging neighborhood kids monthly dues to knock each other’s brains out. 

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