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

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.

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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.”

While unsolicited songs from indie artists show up in Greco and Burt’s email boxes all the time, the odds of this tactic resulting in a synch license on an ad campaign are extremely small. “It never really works,” says Greco. “The song works in the artist’s mind, but they don’t know the creative brief for the brand. They say, ‘We have a song about soda, and you have a soda client.’ But there’s a brand brief about what the brand is, and that song could be completely off from that.

“So unless you really know what the brand strategy is, these out-of-the-blue pitches are pointless. That’s why it’s better when we call them [the music provider], and say ‘Here’s the strategy, here’s the idea, gear your thoughts around this strategic approach.’”

While Greco is sympathetic to the multitude of young/hungry composers looking to move up, there are limitations on how far he can go to give them their big break. “It’s hard – there’s only so many music companies out there, and only so much work. Music licensing takes up some of the spot work, and then people are fighting for the remainder of the original music pie. There are a lot of really great music companies out there, and I wish I could work with all of them. I’d love to give everybody a shot, but it’s just not that easy.”

Brand USA launched with JWT.

Campaign Focus: Brand USA

Of course, another factor that guides an ad agency’s musical direction on a campaign is the budget. Greco and Burt may find themselves working with a $5,000 music allowance for a spot on Monday, then have $300,000 available for another spot on Tuesday.

But no matter what the available funds are for a campaign, reaching a consensus can be an adventurous process. For example, one of JWT’s big wins recently was landing the United States Travel & Tourism|Brand USA account, a partnership which promotes increased international travel to the United States. Greco’s team set out with a healthy music budget and a directive to synch license the perfect track – a job that proved easier said than done.

“Brand USA was looking for the perfect song that had a musical invitation for people outside the US to come and visit,” Greco says. “It had to be the right song, with the right lyrics, from the right artist. The thought was, ‘Let’s find a track that everybody knows. We can use the notoriety of the song and that will be the brand piece.’ But after literally hundreds of pieces of music, there was no one track that everybody could agree on. That wasn’t surprising to me – there were a lot of people involved in the decision-making process.”

Sensing that the perfect synch license wasn’t going to emerge, Greco put his world-class connections to work. “I suggested that we have something original written, performed by an artist that people would know and fit the brand’s personality. That way the brand would also have something that it could own, rather than licensing a track that might also be heard on a car commercial a year from now.”

The heavyweight solution: Greco called John Leventhal, a GRAMMY Award-winning music producer for NYNoise, who also happens to be married to Rosanne Cash. Not long after, the perfect song, “Land of Dreams,” was made – not found – and the newly-launched campaign (it debuted on April 23rd) had its own distinctive sonic centerpiece.

“Rosanne and John wrote it, John produced it, Rick DePofi and Craig Bishop at NYNoise recorded it, and everyone loved it,” says Greco. “That’s a case where an original song trumped the idea of licensing one. Now the brand can use it, and it will be associated with them alone. We are getting great feedback about the song.”

Licensing Trends, and Tracking Down Tracks

For agency music supervisors like Paul Greco and Dan Burt, part of what makes their job enjoyable are new methods for filling their clients’ myriad music needs. These can come in the form of fresh twists on classic catalogs, or any of the online search methods that continue to evolve and emerge.

“If the client needs something immediately for a spot that’s otherwise finished, we’ll look into licensing a track,” Burt says. “More often now clients are looking for original music, but they want it to sound like a track off an artist’s album. And yet another approach is to license the publishing, but re-record the master, which is something we did last year with Amber Music for Royal Caribbean.” (Go here to see how Amber Music producer Leo Sidran re-recorded the 1941 song “Are We Having Fun Yet” for this ear-catching :30 spot).

“There are a lot of times where we’re just licensing the publishing of a song, and then putting a different spin on it,” Greco adds. “You might get the publishing for a Beatles song, and do a string quartet arrangement of that, for example. That way, you take something that people know, but now it gets associated specifically with the spot and the brand. We did that recently for Smirnoff, when we used a completely different indie rock arrangement of the 1987 KISS song ‘Crazy, Crazy Nights’ with Big Foote Music and indie arist Sun for Moon.” (View the video here.)

Seemingly every day, a new online-enabled service launches with the business model of directing music supervisors to ready-to-license tracks. At JWT, these resources have their advantages and disadvantages. “When I started here 10 years ago, stock music was terrible,” Burt says bluntly, “but now you can find good stuff. People like Jingle Punks, Sir Groovy, and Music Dealers are working with real artists. They’re not stock – they’re more like indie labels with legit bands, but they’re one-stop shops for publishing and master licensing.”

But as with all good things, the cup can runneth over. Some synch services have thousands of tracks to choose from in their sophisticated search engines, resulting in an overload of options that ironically reduces their usefulness. “You have to whittle it down,” Greco says. “They all have their own search engines, but we don’t have the time to use them. They have pretty good music supervisors, so it’s easier for us to call them and say, ‘Here’s the brief.’”

Whether JWT is reaching out, or an upstart music provider manages to get these decision makers’ valuable attention, Greco and Burt reiterate the old wisdom that instrumental versions of songs should always be at the ready. “We can’t listen to everything that comes to us, but it’s great when an undiscovered piece cuts through,” says Greco. “Instrumental versions of songs are very helpful. That’s because sometimes the band track is great, but the vocals are in the way. I might hear something and say, ‘Forget the verse, but I love the hook.’”

Would you negotiate a synch license with this man? Tim Myers.

“It’s hard to find a home for a track with vocals on it, but instrumentals can work for a lot of things,” Burt notes. “One line in the chorus might say the wrong thing, and then you can’t use it. But with the instrumental, you have a lot more latitude. Or, the other option is if your songs have a positive message that can be applied to many different things. Tim Myers is one example – he makes a ton of songs that are super catchy, and they’ve been in ads for Target, Google, JC Penney.”

All of which is in line with what Greco sees as being part of the overall licensing trend in advertising, which is moving away from Led Zeppelin-sized acquisitions. “The famous song is less requested now, and more often its, ‘Let’s find the next great indie band.’ Brands want to find the next cool song, so they can put it out there and be able to say, ‘We were the ones to find it.’”

Audio Post is in The House

Adding on to the options available to JWT’s music team, virtually all of their needs can be handled with dedicated in-house facilities at JWTwo. Composing, mixing, sound design, and radio can all be expedited by an experienced staff that’s available exclusively for JWT’s clients.

While there has been an ebb and flow in the industry-wide offering of these services in-house, Greco sees this as a period where it’s on the rise once again. “It seems that more and more agencies are trying to pull some aspects of audio production in-house, because of the revenue it can generate – just like any other audio post facility, we bill our clients,” he says. “There are not as many agencies that can do music and sound design in-house, but we’re one of the ones that can.”

With veteran sound designers like Alan Friedman making up the award-winning full-time audio staff, JWT’s creatives have the advantage of getting essential new sonic elements in an instant – a necessity considering today’s notoriously tight advertising production deadlines.

“If we’re in the middle of a job and someone says, ‘I wish we had a musical end tag, or a new underscore,’ we can do all that,” states Greco. “With creatives’ and producers’ schedules as tightly packed as they are, that’s a big competitive advantage. There’s a major convenience factor in having a professionally equipped and solidly staffed studio here, but there’s also trust — our creatives and producers have built up a relationship with these engineers.

“That’s the bottom line: We can outfit these rooms with the best equipment in the world, but if talent isn’t onboard, it won’t matter. We get our fair share of the work here, because the guys are really that good.”

As an ad man who started his career at an audio post facility, Greco relates with the distress that in-house agency facilities can cause to post houses in NYC and beyond. “I respect all of those places – I’ve worked at all of them and still do, and they’re great at what they do,” he says. “But this is the new business model of ad agencies. There are quarterly revenue statements that have to be met, every source of revenue that an agency can provide is very important, and this is one of them.”

Ad Music: Makes it Move

The clients and distribution channels for advertising have changed considerably since the seeds of JWT were first sown in 1864, but the basic challenges of the trade might very well look familiar to the company’s forefathers.

Music is a priority at one of New York's most experienced names in advertising.

“It’s always about budgets and schedule,” Greco says. “Whether it’s licensing the perfect song or producing the perfect track, we need time and money. But especially in an economy like today, there’s always a squeeze at all ends.”

But there’s a very good reason to play through the pain: campaigns launched by an ad agency with the clout of JWT are experienced worldwide, created by a team of dedicated professionals who have made the art of advertising their craft. An amazing ad can have a global impact. “It’s very fulfilling when you get it right,” says Greco. “You’ve worked hard for three months, it looks good, it sounds good – there’s a pride to that. You get to see your work and your input.”

Ultimately, however, advertising is about getting results. When music choices are spot on, that’s part of the equation that makes profits rise for agency clients. For Paul Greco, Dan Burt, and the rest of their team at JWT, the reward for that is another campaign and a fresh set of musical possibilities.

“If everything you did works, then they’ll do it again,” Greco concludes. “If the ad community likes what you did, that’s great. But if it doesn’t move the needle and sales don’t go up, clients will try and find another thing. That’s the end game in this business: We’re selling stuff.”

— David Weiss is the Founder/Editor of SonicScoop, and co-author of the book Music Supervision: Selecting Music for Movies, TV, Games & New Media.