In this series, DLMDD’s Jed Taylor journeys into the minds of industry leaders across ad-land and brand-land to find out how we can all exploit the powers of music, sound and sonic branding.
DLMDD Meets #3
Executive Creative Director
Hi Tony, welcome to DLMDD Meets. Thank you for joining me today to allow me to pick your brains and explore a little about how the world of music and sound relates to you as well as how you relate to it! Sonic branding is a field that is still rapidly evolving, there is no assembly manual or textbook when it comes to creating a sonic identity from a strategic perspective. This series aims to contribute to the knowledge base of our industry through the perspectives and experience of senior figures either affiliated or outside of it.
J – So, let’s kick this off by being a little bit general, but I’m sure why will become apparent in a minute. Tony, can you tell us a little about who you are, what you do, how you got here….and maybe a little on how you knew my colleague Jeremy back in the day.
T – Sure! So I’m Tony Pipes, I’m the Executive Creative Director of ITV Creative. ITV Creative are the in-house advertising agency for ITV. So we basically make all of the broadcast marketing for the programmes themselves and look after the brand as well. So anything that’s on TV that isn’t an advert or a programme, we look after. We do all the campaigns for Britain’s Got Talent and all the big dramas, we also do all the idents as well as all the branding for the various channels we look after including ITV Hub and Britbox. We’re a pretty big team, about 50 of us with an in-house production team, group of creatives, design team, audio engineers and editors and basically everything we need to ideate and create the work we put out.
I think I can actually recall the moment I fell in love, I remember hearing Sucker MC’s by Run DMC and suddenly everything was different.
My background started in music really. From about 14 I was in bands – music was definitely my first love. I think I can actually recall the moment I fell in love, I remember hearing Sucker MC’s by Run DMC and suddenly everything was different. It became one of those things where I no longer just wanted to listen to music, I wanted to make it. So I found out as much as I could, about Hip-Hop mainly and then that eventually spanned into other genres. That eventually led to being in a band with my best friend Rick and eventually we formed a band called Space Monkeys which….somehow…got signed to Factory Records which is how I know Jez (Jeremy – DLMDD’s Operations Director) who was the label manager there at the time.
The band and in particular, Factory Records was my training ground for creativity. Working with Tony Wilson, he wasn’t a businessman, evidently, but he really believes in creativity; everything was about making the most creative thing possible. Tony didn’t really care if he made money or anything, he just wanted to make the best thing. He used to throw things at you, like he’d put us in a room with really weird collaborators like Kim Fowley who’s an old LA producer and absolute nutcase. We recorded an EP with him and despite the fact that we hated him and he hated us, we got something really interesting out of it. Tony’s way of working was inspirational because he was never scared to try new things which has stuck with me all through my career really.
That lasted about 4 years and we recorded and toured and all the rest of it which was really exciting but it got to a point where I wasn’t bored of that life as such, I was more bored with the music industry. I love music so much that I didn’t want it to become that thing I was bitter about so before I fell out of love with music for good, I left the band and went to university as a mature student. I chose to do graphic design and music had a lot to do with that decision. All of my influence as far as graphic design went came from the greats of record sleeve design. From there I got a job at the BBC which funnily enough I thought was a design job, but it turned out that it wasn’t and I found myself writing TV and advert scripts. The role was as a junior creative and that’s where I expanded from pure design. From there I continued and found myself where I am today at ITV. In my time I’ve found myself working on everything from short advert scripts to directing big campaigns for the likes of Luther, Broadchurch, Doctor Who and Downton Abbey. Despite not specialising specifically in design, that background gave me a really solid footing in the brand world, even taken as far as sonic branding. All of those principles I learned through being a designer.
J – So as someone who had to launch themselves into the world of fairly broad and multi-disciplinary creative ideation headfirst, you’ve had to learn on your feet as you go! Where do you think the common ground across disciplines in applied creative work is most important?
T – I think what I’ve learned throughout it all is that it doesn’t matter the discipline really, the process is often the same. I think it was Massimo Vignelli who summarised this quite nicely when he said “design is one” which in layman’s terms means if you can design a poster, then you can also design a logo…or a chair!
The design process is one thinking process expressed in a number of ways and you either think like a designer or you don’t. An idea is an idea.
J – That’s an interesting point that leads to a question I had prepared for later, so we’ll dive right into it…
What has puzzled me for a while is the theory gap between what we term “sound design” and everything else we refer to as design. In the context of graphic design for example, it seems we have been able to take the visual medium, which can, if we want it to be, be infinitely complex and nuanced, and have divided it into discrete and concrete attributes, whether they be shapes, colour codes, textures, typefaces or references to the outside world or culture. As a result of that we have theories, schools of thought, design styles and semiotics. A well-designed piece of….well….design can say much about its contents without even being read and this is enormously powerful. We don’t however see this in sound design quite to the same extent, it is regarded as much less tangible, ethereal and less capable of being shaped objectively in order to convey or frame a message. Why do you think this is and do you see sound design ever reaching maturity as a field of design?
T – Well I would hope so! It’s interesting isn’t it because in other media like film and theatre, music is used so well to create mood, you know, you can watch a film and know what’s going to happen just by the soundtrack and often classic music tracks are used in advertising as well to evoke that emotion and mood, just like a logo colour can. So it’s interesting that there is some disparity as far as methodology goes because you can do so much with sound and texture to create emotion. When it comes to brands, first impressions last don’t they. So when you see a brand, you fall in love with the colour and the logo and the mood of it, and music and sound can do that as well so hopefully there will be a point where sound design can see its true potential. I think we’re moving in the right direction, there definitely seems to be more understanding of what sound can do and that can only be a good thing.
J – One of the biggest barriers I’ve noticed is that of language, we can talk about graphic design or industrial design in a language that other designers or those commissioning them will understand. However, we lack a comprehensive language for sound that really encompasses everything that can define it. It’s easier to understand and implement an instruction to make something more left-aligned, round or yellow than it is to make something sound “rougher”; much of the terminology we use in sound derives more from impressionistic metaphor or experienced cultural reference points than it does from anything more objective.
T – I think you’re right, it’s difficult to describe sound whereas if you train in a visual form of design, it’s much easier to communicate ideas in a way that everyone understands. When we’re getting feedback on audio for example from marketing people, it’s always really difficult for them to describe what they mean. What can make people move one way can make someone else move another so it’s difficult but it’s going to become more and more important I think. Looking at it from a broadcast marketing point of view, there’s going to be a point where linear TV kind of disappears and everybody’s going to be searching to play this or that content and identifying where that content comes from is going to become increasingly important. So if you said to your TV “play me Broadchurch”, we don’t really care where it comes from, but if you were the one who made that content, you want that recognisability to say that this show is good and it was ITV that made it. I think Netflix have got that nailed with their sonic logo, HBO as well have been doing it for years with that distinctive hiss. I think it’s going to become very important as the landscape of broadcast media evolves over the coming years so I think we’re seeing a lot more people, especially on my side of things taking notice of sonic branding because of that.
J – There’s an enormous amount of transformation happening and it’s really interesting to hear from you how you think sound is going to play a huge role in shaping it. With linear TV, navigation is so uncontrolled, you can tune into a channel halfway through something and there’s no guarantee you will encounter an ident or anything like that, so really it comes down to the programming and reputation. As navigation in this field evolves, it seems as if maybe that how and when we receive brand cues will not only become more controlled but integral to the experience.
T – Yes, exactly. I mean, we use idents on air and many other stations still do but really that’s coming to the end of its life now the way viewing habits are going. You need something else to give people that identification and I think audio is the best way to do it. We just did a rebrand on ITV Hub and some work on Britbox as well last year, the sonic branding was really important for both of those because of exactly what we’re talking about. As we move into the future, we have to consider all avenues of brand communication and part of that was asking what do these platforms sound like? It was really interesting but also frustrating because exposure to these ideas for the most part is so frustrating. People often want what they’ve heard elsewhere and so it became a bit of ‘do what Netflix has done’ when actually there’s an opportunity to do something really different here. I think we’ll end up revisiting it in a few years because it needs to come from a place of asking what exactly it is we’re trying to say.
The prioritisation of these things still needs some work, you know, it’s often, ‘let’s see the logo’ then ‘let’s see the advert’ then ‘oh and lets do some sonic branding as well’ when really it should be the other way round!
J – I was reading your blog the other day and found one point you made regarding form following function, you quoted David Ogilvy to the effect of “if you have a good enough idea, the technique won’t kill it” which feels particularly pertinent as adoption of sonic identities grows. The sonic logo is often defaulted to as the main carrier of the brand, but branding is a problem solving exercise. There is no A + B = C to be found really and so whilst you might have an immaculate sounding sonic logo, the rationale behind it might simply be that we think we need one. Do you think that the world of sonic branding still has room to grow in as far as developing strong strategic foundations and problem solving goes?
T – To be honest, I’m not sure it’s the sonic branding world that needs to step up its game. I think it’s more that the general attitude towards it needs to evolve. I think in order to do that, the effectiveness needs to be proven a bit more. From the creative side of things, we understand how important and what a great tool it is but for the people making the investment, the effectiveness and confidence in return needs to be demonstrated more clearly. People just react to figures these days so if you can say that your sonic device increased brand awareness by X percent then I think it will be easier to shift attitudes and people will embrace it more. It’s difficult to quantify so there will always be something a little bit scary about it.
J – To refer back to something you said on your blog again, you made a nice argument in that same post stating that a good idea shouldn’t feel scary or risky. Do you think that being able in some way to quantify the impact sonics can have on a brand is crucial to helping ease people’s fears?
T – Absolutely, I mean, in my experience, most marketing people go through life just trying not to get fired!
J – I think that sums up our predicament quite well!
T – I mean that’s why there’s so much vanilla work out there because people would much rather stay on the fence than stick their neck out.
J – Every aspect of marketing must have gone through a stage of relative novelty and un-quantifiability (let’s just presume that is a word). What lessons do you think we can take from other disciplines when it comes to proposing slightly wild ideas that may not have been done before, let alone have quantitative data to back them up?
T – I think you’ve just got to find the right clients haven’t you, I mean you can certainly read the room as far as whether someone is looking for slightly wilder ideas and taking a chance a bit. I think the more you do that, then the more proof you have. It is tough though to win hearts and minds with these things often. We’re all guilty in some respect of being a bit stuck in our ways. If you have done something time and time again and it’s kind of worked, you kind of think you know how it ‘should’ be. For my part, I hate on-screen idents. They feel a bit out of date and antiquated so we tried really hard to do something different with them and we were literally in a room full of people saying “you just need 4 films that will stay on air for 5 years, and that’s all you need!” and we managed to sway them towards what ended up being the ‘ITV Creates’ campaign.
J – Can you elaborate a little on that?
T – So our idents get updated every week to a visual artist who basically makes an ITV logo which airs, as you guessed, for a week. It took us quite a while to really win people over that this was a good idea. No one had really done this before and there were lots of voices who have done so many idents and know what they are doing.
J – That approach is interesting, not only for its output and the level of engagement it brings to the humble ident, but also for how it kind of goes to show that brand consistency is not always about consistency of output, but rather consistency of approach.
T – Absolutely. I think it’s selective attention as well isn’t it? You know, there’s so many rebrands and so many brands are doing things the same way, you become blind to it. If someone does something a little bit different, it’s surprising how much that can captivate people who have become numb to the tried and tested formulas. It would be interesting to see a brand lead with sound! No logo. just have a sound. I think that would peak people’s attention quite a lot and it sometimes takes that kind of bravery to wake people up a little bit. It only takes one person to do it for everyone else to follow.
J – So, music…
T – Yep.
J – Music is fundamentally intertwined with culture and identity in many ways. At times, branded music can often miss the mark in so far as any sort of real connection to the way we use music in our everyday lives. Do you think that understanding and leveraging the power music has as part of our personal and collective identity is essential to the effective use of sound and music in relation to brands? And where do you think the power lies in that relationship?
T – That’s a tricky one isn’t it because if you are a brand, you want to convey the image of your brand, but then I suppose really what you should be doing is tapping into the culture of your audience. But culture is such a difficult thing to pin down these days. Back when I was…a young one….it was very tribal! You had your rock kids, your goths, your Hip-Hop kids and all the rest of it; it was very easy to see where the culture is. I think these days the lines are much more blurred. But maybe, if you are able to narrow down a cultural segment, then it’s about using figures such as musicians that are actually relevant to that culture. There’s a library called Extreme Music who do that quite well, NinjaTune as well are quite good at it, using musicians that genuinely come from and exude the culture that has shaped their sound. I think it makes sense to do so just as you would with a logo, you would examine the cultural space that it sits in and design it to be relevant to that. Ultimately it’s about pulling the influences in from whatever audience you’re aiming for. But again, it’s difficult because culture can also be such a personal thing and honing in on that has definitely got harder.
J – I think I’m a little bit torn on this and I suppose that is testament to the idea that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. On one end, I notice that sometimes we maybe don’t acknowledge enough the personal and connective power music and sound have through their relationships with culture and identity. Commercially applied music and the kind of music we decorate our spaces with are often very different beasts. Conversely, as you said, it’s often hard to pin down a cultural commonality that pervades an entire segment and so leaning too hard into a cultural space in which your segment may only have a coincidental connection could actually serve to alienate people; a more agnostic approach that can be made relevant through subjective experience may actually be better.
T – That’s the thing, you don’t want to be generic but at the same time, as with ITV, our briefs are aimed at our audience which is often…..everybody! This can make things super super difficult when it comes down to crafting a direction. The way I approach it with my team is that they should regard the audience as their peers almost. You can very easily fall into a trap of dumbing down your work when the brief states that it is for everybody. But if you think about that audience as your mum and dad, or your mates, you wouldn’t dumb it down. So thinking about it that way allows us to keep in mind a wide range of people whilst still treating their intellect with the respect it deserves.
J – Now, as an *award winning* creative director, do you have an example of a time where sound has proved to be crucial or transformative to a piece of the work you have led? You can tell a story about it being detrimental too if you like, to keep things balanced.
T – I can certainly think of a moment where it has been beneficial. When I came over to ITV, I was the Creative Director for all of the marketing for the drama content. When I came over here, it was lacking direction a bit, it felt very generic and included pretty much all of the drama programming clichés you can think of. So, I kind of wanted to wipe the floor clean with it and start again. I started with a promo for a campaign called ‘Where Drama Lives’. It had no sync whatsoever, just music. We used Paloma Faith’s ‘Just Be’ and really my key aim was to own emotion, so it was just pictures of people talking set to that music. And everyone at the time was going ‘but you don’t know what the dramas are even about?’ But it increased the ITV drama brand by about 3 or 4 points in 2 weeks. I won a gold Promax for it and after that we all started making drama like that. Leading with music allowed us to create that emotion that people really resonated with and that formula worked for years afterwards. The BBC even ended up ripping us off. That style of female vocalist for an emotive drama trailer was started by us. Music in that instance allowed us to convey the emotion and use it as a shortcut to what our dramas were about which is emotion and real human spirit.
It’s quite nice becoming your own cliché.
J – You’re up there with Hans Zimmer and the Inception sound!
We’ll finish up with a nice general question to round us off.
In your current position, if you had to develop or work with a sonic identity, and we lived in a perfect world where you always get exactly what you want, what would you expect from your perfect sonic identity and how would it ideally make your life easier?
I would love to make a brand just with sonics I think.
T – Well, I think that goes back to what we were talking about earlier a little bit: It wouldn’t look like anything, it would just sound like something! I would love to make a brand just with sonics I think. If ITV dropped the logo and just had a sonic, that would be slam dunk for me. Because, like I say, it’s becoming more and more important to consider these things considering the way broadcast media is evolving. Sound is a shortcut to emotion and when you first encounter a brand, that emotional response is key. I think HBO do it incredibly because their sound has almost become a benchmark of quality in a way. I think in my world, an emotional shortcut that is synonymous with the kind of quality we offer and that is easily recognised and signature to us would be ideal.
J – Thank you Tony, it’s been a pleasure quizzing you on what you think of my job, learning from your experience and finding out a bit more about what goes on behind the scenes in broadcast! You’re the first person I’ve interviewed thus far who is on record as being described as a ‘polymath’ so thank you for helping us reach that milestone! On a more serious note though, it’s fantastic to chat with someone about the relationship between sound and brands with someone who has worked with both in times where their respective industries are being shaken to the core. A pint when this is all over!
T – Cheers!