Inside JWT: Music Supervision and Production at a Large Advertising Agency

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MIDTOWN, MANHATTAN:In the land of music, the commercial is king. As the world’s major agencies vie for accounts that can be worth billions of dollars a year in billings, one of the key ways they prove themselves is with their ability to match brands to bands.

Step inside and find out what's going on.

This ferocious competition plays out on TV sets, radio dials, Web video, and mobile devices by the minute. It’s not surprising, then, that the music executives on Madison Avenue can make a major impact on the bottom line of professionals across the sound spectrum: composers, artists, mixers, audio post houses, publishers, record labels, libraries, synch search services, and more can all be significantly affected by their decisions on a campaign.

Now zoom in on the legendary agency JWT. Occupying a towering atrium in midtown, JWT (known as J. Walter Thompson until 2005) stands as the fourth-largest advertising agency in the world, and its nearly 10,000 employees get creative for some of the globe’s most recognizable corporations: Bloomberg Media, Diageo, Energizer, Johnson & Johnson, Macy’s, Rolex and Royal Caribbean are just a few of their blue-chip clients.

The man who pulls all the sound together for this enviable portfolio is Paul Greco. As Director of Music and Radio for JWT, Greco leads an experienced team tasked with putting an effective sonic imprint on their advertising campaigns. While Greco may be viewed as a gatekeeper by many, part of his personal mission is opening things up, and shedding as much light as possible on how a top ad agency achieves its aural aims – rather than keeping the process under wraps.

Building the Perfect Ad Music Department

Greco’s beginnings track back to the mid-‘80’s, when he was an audio post engineer. But facilities led to agencies BBDO and then Young & Rubicam, where he enjoyed a near 14-year run. At Y&R he produced original music and licensed music by everyone from the Beatles to Fountains of Wayne, Cyndi Lauper and St. Germain in the process. After a stop at publisher Spirit Music Group and a freelancing stint in 2011, Greco was back in the agency saddle where he belongs.

“When the opportunity came to lead the group here, I didn’t hesitate,” Greco says. “I really like multifaceted, big agencies, and JWT has great accounts and a really good reputation. I thought it was a great chance to lead a department and formulate it the way I always wanted to.

“It’s a slow process, but we’re getting there. We’re working towards a combination of a strong music production department, a very well-put-together licensing department, and really strong radio production. Put them all under one roof, and blend them into one.”

Like a lot of top NYC agencies, JWT has invested significantly in developing in-house facilities and talent for composing, sound design and mixing. Still, Greco estimates that 90% of JWT’s original music-related work goes to outside vendors, which means that building relationships with outside music companies is one of his top priorities.

With that network in hand, Greco and his co-pilot at JWT, Music Producer and Supervisor Dan Burt, transition to the role of translator as a campaign’s musical needs begin to emerge. “We have to have a great relationship with the agency’s creative directors, so we can interpret what they’re looking for,” Greco explains. “Sometimes they can express their needs in a very non-musical way, which is to be expected if they’re not musicians. Then we take these non-musical instructions to composers and arrangers, in music-speak, so that they have a clear understanding of what we need.”

Whether a spot’s soundtrack comes from original music or a licensed track, making sure that the sonic idea never gets lost in translation is critical to the success of the campaign. “It’s a lot more important than most people realize,” says Burt. “The object of a commercial is for someone to pay attention to it. A lot of people like to watch music videos. If a commercial has some of that same appeal, people are more likely to spend some time with it.”

“Music connects to the consumer,” Greco adds. “When the film of a commercial is over, it’s over, but if the music makes a connection, then people are humming it later on – you take it around with you. The music is something that people will seek out, and it’s very helpful for a brand when it can attach to that. So the result of the right piece of music is more long-term equity for advertisers.”

(l-r) JWT's Dan Burt and Paul Greco (Photo: David Weiss)

How the Musical Concept Evolves

For Greco and Burt, the aforementioned translation process begins when a campaign’s creative director comes to them, with anything from highly produced video to a storyboard to just a vague concept in hand.

“Sometimes we get clear instructions, and sometimes we have to help figure it out,” says Greco. “Often what we hear is, ‘We don’t know what we want, but we know we need music.’ So we find example tracks that we play for the creatives, and say, ‘Is it something like this, or is it more like this other option?’ Playing examples can help direct us to what they want.

“Then we say to a music company, a licensing agency, a label, or one of our other resources, ‘They want something like this. Let’s make this tone or genre work.’ That can be the most effective way — finding an example that exists, and then moving things in that direction. We can then communicate a style, tempo, or even just a vibe.”

Since the experience of music is notoriously subjective, Greco and Burt have learned over the years that a creative director’s initial request for hip hop can eventually lead to a genre on the other side of the musical map, once the search process gets underway. “In many cases I’ve learned to give them what they want – not what they ask for!” Greco laughs. “It’s often up to us to figure out what the creative team is really seeking out.

“Sometimes creatives are very astute with a good working knowledge of music, and they’ll say, ‘I would really love be-bop here.’ That’s obviously an easier time, when we work with creatives who have a musical sense and can verbalize what they want.”

When Greco senses a discrepancy between what’s being requested and what he thinks the brand message may be better suited for, he’s learned how to gently shift the creative team’s perspective.

“Sometimes we’ll say to them, ‘What if we also tried this?’ Hearing is believing, and you have to show them. You can tell them about a superior music selection, but sometimes you have to actually give them something additional to listen to. That can mean pulling in another example track, or asking a music company to record an additional demo that shows another genre.”

The Music Search Begins

Once the music needs start to come into focus, Greco and Burt will make the Almighty Call that gets a music provider in on the project. If an in-house JWT composer isn’t selected, then Greco will look first to the people who have come through for him before.

“We all have relationships that we’ve built over the years, and you tend to come back to them because they have a track record of delivering,” he points out. “But we’re also willing to work with new companies if they show they’re doing something interesting. We may see their reel, something on YouTube, or elsewhere and say, ‘That’s a cool track. We want to do something like that.’ Composers and music houses that we haven’t worked with before often call us and say, ‘We want to meet with you,’ and we try. But our day is pretty packed – it’s not always easy to get in front of us.”

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  • Gsantonas

    Woo hoo Dan Burt

  • PG

    Woohoo Dan Burt, indeed

  • Why not post the brief so indie musicians can be more competitive? I’ve got over 500 original songs, nobody knows what might match a brief like I do… if I don’t have what you want, I could probably create it in a day or two. The industry is too opaque and secretive. I know some outstanding indie artists and it’s a shame, the world won’t get to know them.


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