great minds on music: an interview with james hilton

James Hilton AKQA Co-founder,  shares his insights in this edition of our “Great Minds on Music” series. “Great Minds on Music” is a series of conversations with some of the top names in the business of advertising and Uli Reese, President of iV2. If you’d like to read more from these innovative thinkers, selecting this link will aggregate all the interviews for easy viewing.


Reese: So let’s dive in: how important is music in your work?

Hilton: Massively. Music, like smell, evokes more emotions than vision. If you’re played a piece of music from your youth, that will evoke far more emotion than a photograph will. It’s almost instant recall. And those things are incredibly powerful when you’re creating a brand or working with brands. One recent piece of work I wish we’d done is an iPhone game called the Nightjar, for Wrigley’s Five Gum. You have to use your headphones – and it’s done using binaural sound recording: 3D sound. The premise is that you’re walking through a spaceship that’s being attacked by aliens. But all you have on your screen is a left arrow, a right arrow, and two pads for walking. The game is created entirely through sound – your hearing triggers your imagination, which is far scarier than any special effect. But to answer your question: sound is everything.

“I don’t speak in musical terms, I don’t know the difference between a quaver or a semi-quaver, but I understand emotion…” – James Hilton

Reese: Do you think music can change behavior?

Hilton: I think it can make you more susceptible to certain suggestions. When you go to a punk concert, you feel a bit violent – but it’s a good violence, a cathartic violence. But when you listen to classical music, you feel smarter, more intellectual, because the music carries a cultural significance. If you meet me at a punk concert you’re going to find a slightly different person to the one at the classical concert. We all know that music influences mood. For instance, there must be all sorts of scientific data about music that makes you want to linger in a store. It has a similar effect to classical music: “You’re an enlightened consumer – so this is where you want to be.”

Reese:  So you believe it’s possible to modify the behavior of consumers?

Hilton: You’re not creating new behaviors, you’re tapping into existing behaviors and amplifying them by using different musical genres.

Reese: Could you use music to convince a consumer to pick one brand over another, for instance?

Hilton: So let’s talk about the power of music and how it can change people’s buying habits. One word: Levi’s. All the great Levi’s ads over time are have been powered by music: the music is the hero of the piece. People gravitate towards that music, they associate it with that particular brand, and Levi’s sales go through the roof. They’ve changed behavior.

Reese: Do you believe a brand should be recognizable by sound only?

Hilton: I don’t think every brand could do it. But take THX: everybody recognizes the THX “drone” at the start of a movie. You could play someone that drone out of context and they’d recognize it. Same with the 20th Century Fox fanfare. But should all brands have it? No, I don’t think so. It’s about what’s relevant. It works for Apple because the brand has a soul, a personality. The chime when you start a Mac signifies the start of an experience. Yes, there’s also the Intel mnemonic, but it’s so annoying…but at the end of the day, a brand isn’t a logo or a font or a sound, but a behavior. A brand is whatever people think it is – that’s where it becomes difficult. A brand’s behavior must be consistent so that many different people perceive it in more or less the same way.

Reese: What’s your process when you’re dealing with music providers? What happens in the agency with music?

Hilton: Because of who we are and what we do, music is in the air all the time. Things like Spotify make it far easier to share music – there are collaborative playlists going around the studio. The musical ecosystem is alive and well within the agency. So you’re always going to be hearing things that you haven’t heard before, or a new take on something that you’ve been listening to…Ideas come to different people in different ways. Personally, I dream them: my head just gets on with it while I’m asleep, then kind of passes a note under the door telling me what to do. One piece of music that popped into my mind was Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All the Time in the World”. It fit perfectly with the work. Then one of the guys came back and said “We’ve found a cover version of that done by My Bloody Valentine”. I used to love that band when I was young, but I’d never heard that track. They played it to me and it was fucking awesome, just brilliant. It was still the thing that I’d thought of, but now it had this twist, it had this edge that made it beyond perfect. And that’s what we try to do.

Reese: What if you don’t have the budget to buy what you need?

Hilton: Well, then you have to get something composed. We’ve worked with loads of composers. Usually we’ll go in with what’s essentially a mood board of sounds: there’ll be a base track, a foundation for the feeling we want to evoke. It maps the rise and falls of the emotions we’re looking for. But it might not be the exact sound we’re looking for – that might be in another snippet.

Reese: You’ve found that to be the most effective way of briefing a composer?

Hilton: We use sound software as well, so we’ll do very crude mixes of the thing we want. And it’ll be: “Imagine that, but backwards”. I work very closely with composers – we’ll sit there sketching with music. I don’t speak in musical terms, I don’t know the difference between a quaver or a semi-quaver, but I understand emotion – and I can create it with pieces from completely unrelated tracks. If there’s a specific drum sound I’m looking for, I can find it somewhere and play it to them.

Reese: What’s most important in a creative partner, in a composer?

Hilton: Somebody who isn’t afraid. Somebody who completely accepts that there are new ideas out there, and that they don’t have all the answers – and neither do I. But they’re willing to say “yeah, let’s try it”.

Reese: And not be judgmental.

Hilton: Not be precious. “But that’s not how you do it.” I don’t give a shit how you’re supposed to do it – this is the way I want to do it.

Reese: Do you like to go in the studio with them, or do they just send you something you can download?

Hilton: No, what would be the fun in that? I like to get my hands dirty. I can’t play an instrument – maybe a bit of bass guitar. But the whole point of being creative is that you want to be creative with everything. I love making films, I love writing, and I love making sounds…When we’re doing the recording I’ll be in the sound booth hitting things, or singing, or doing the voiceover, or making sound effects.

Reese: So you help to pull it all together.

Hilton: I remember when I was kid seeing a documentary about the making of Star Wars. There’s a moment I remember vividly, when the Industrial Light and Magic guys are looking for the sound of the lasers. Their car breaks down on the way to the studio. They get out of the car and one of them bumps into a cable supporting a telegraph pole – it goes “choom!” They look at each other and it’s like, “that’s our sound”. So they go back with recording equipment and spend an afternoon twanging wires. I thought – that is brilliant, that’s what I want to do.

Reese: How do you evaluate music? Do you use a testing company for audio, which tells you whether to take track one, two, or three?

Hilton: We don’t use a testing company for anything.

Reese: So what goes on air?

Hilton: What you think is best. Look, if you’ve worked hard enough and you’ve done everything you’re meant to do, the track will have sex appeal, it will give you goose bumps.

Reese: Music can be polarizing – even if there are a few tracks everyone thinks are amazing. Do you look for that kind of consensus?

Hilton: Sometimes there’s a consensus of opinion, but I’ve never actually cared about consensus. I’m very much: “Well, I like it – I think that’s the one we should go for.” I make a decision. As we say in the book Velocity, “no good joke survives a committee of six.”

Reese: Last question: is there something inside you that knows instinctively when you have a great idea – an idea that people will still talk about in ten years?

Hilton: If anyone tells you they can feel that, they’re lying to you.

Reese: But this has happened several times to you in your career. How did it feel? An idea that started out as a little spark, very fragile, but you fought for it, you made decisions, you made it work…

Hilton: My point of view when it comes to work is that there are no right or wrong decisions. There are only decisions you make based on the data available to you at the time. The consequences of that decision could be…nothing. No-one ever hears about it, no-one ever sees it. Or, it could become a world famous, award-winning piece of work. But at the time, you don’t know what’s going to happen. All you have to ask yourself is “Am I doing this for the right reasons? Do I believe in my heart that this is the right decision?” And if I believe that, I let the consequences take care of themselves.

Uli spoke James Hilton, AKQA co-founder, after his address to attendees of the the ADC Festival in Frankfurt, Germany. After co-founding the AKQA in 1995, James witnessed the agency grow to become the world’s leading independent and most awarded digital agency. Recently acquired by WPP, AKQA is recognized for its ability to combine technological craft with emotive creativity. James has collected a multitude of global awards along the way, and in turn has served as a judge for Cannes Lions, Webby Awards, as Chairman for the Clio Awards and as President of the digital jury for Eurobest. He is also an executive member of The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences. In December 2011, James was named the UK’s number one digital Creative Director by Campaign magazine in the UK, and AdWeek in the US. You can keep up with James by following him on twitter: @jameshiltonesq

One Comment

  1. Posted March 3, 2014 at 6:01 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I think your work is absolutely great, but if this guy ever calls me – I’m busy! JG

    Sent from my iPad


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