Advertising Week: How Four Key Agency Music Supervisors Find the Perfect Song

As Advertising Week descends upon New York this week, Billboard puts a spotlight on four notable music supervisors and agencies making songs and artists the stars of some of the year's biggest campaigns.

Behind every great use of a song in a commercial, there's a few good music supervisors who've helped scout that track -- sometimes over the course of a month or two, but often in a matter of days or even hours. Whether it's a surprising take on a classic track, a clever cover or an impactful score, music in ads continues to be a blazing-hot category for the industry, as well as artists' wallets. According to the IFPI's 2012 industry report, synchronization revenue grew 2.1% and totaled $337 million, up from $330 million.

And in recent years, ad agency music supervisors have risen to a level of influence on par with radio DJs, as their ability to place songs in national commercials can often start a campaign for an active single and force the other platforms to keep up with that momentum (just ask fun., whose "We Are Young" commercial with Chevrolet during the 2012 Super Bowl remains a gold standard for many supes nearly two years after its initial use.)



Founder, Good Ear Music Supervision

In the late 2000s, as a music supervisor for Apple at TBWA’s Media Arts Lab in Los Angeles, Andrew Kahn was part of a team (led by Steve Jobs, of course) that made unlikely hits out of quirky indie-pop songs like Yael Naim’s "New Soul," the Ting Tings’ "Shut Up and Let Me Go" and Chairlift’s "Bruises." But after he left the agency in 2011 to start his own supervision company, he found there were more avenues to explore.

"There’s just so much great music—just working for one brand, you can really use so much of it," says Kahn, who due to various non-disclosure agreements still only refers to Apple as "the brand." "I was just eager to try my hand at exposing more music."

In the two-and-a-half years since founding Good Ear Music Supervision (G.E.M.S.) in March 2011, Kahn and fellow supervisor Alex Tzenkov have helped brands like Cadillac, Target, Sonos, Diet Pepsi and Southern Comfort place memorable songs in their spots. Even Oprah Winfrey is a fan—she tweeted her love this summer for the hooks of "Ula Ula," a Spanish hip-hop song by Illya Kuryaki & the Valderramas that Kahn helped place for Target.

The "Ula Ula"/Target campaign is a classic example of what’s known in ad circles as "temp love"—when a song or creative reference is used as a placeholder to spur other ideas, but "nobody can move on after that reference. It happens in almost every single campaign," he says. Of course, there have been plenty of other instances of "temp love" that have ended in lawsuits. "Some go-to references are the White Stripes or the Black Keys, and this is where people always get in trouble because they always reference that song," Kahn says. "You always want to make sure the songs aren’t replaceable or re-synchable themselves."

Sarah Bates, an associate creative director on Honda at RPA, says she and Kahn speak in "cultural code" when it comes to relaying very specific creative briefs for her client’s music searches. "We’ll say, ‘Hey, we’re looking for a pop song but it’s something guys be would be into,’" Bates says. "It wouldn’t even be specific to a genre or an era, and he’ll pull old stuff or stuff that’s not even out yet and just completely nail what we’re going for in ways that other companies can’t."

The reverse is true when it comes to publishers and labels looking to pitch Kahn. "It’s always nice if they know me and they say something like, ‘This is a really weird Greek psychedelic rock song,’" he says. "If you distinctly describe a song in an incredibly interesting way, it helps."


VP of Community, GSD&M

David Rockwood has just finished listing all of his duties at GSD&M, the Omnicom-backed creative agency headquartered in Austin, when he realizes he needs a change to his job title. Currently the agency’s VP of community, Rockwood splits his time as an account director on golf client the PGA Tour, a community relations director for GSD&M’s nonprofit clients, a music supervisor for clients Walgreen's, Zales and Southwest Airlines as well as account director for TV show 'Austin City Limits.

"I guess that doesn’t really tell you what I do all that much," he says with a laugh after sharing the descriptor on his business card. "At least 25% of my week is dedicated to music, and that will go up as time goes by."

Rockwood also helps book bands for agency showcases at the GSD&M offices on W. Sixth St., which have quickly become a routing tool for touring bands looking to court brands’ favor. "We had our Walgreen’s client in a few weeks ago, and Warner Bros. said, ‘Johnny Rzeznik from the Goo Goo Dolls is going to be in Dallas. We’d love to fly him down to Austin for a few hours to come play for you guys,’" Rockwood recalls. "They flew in for six hours just to perform at our agency. Things like that help keep everyone up on the emerging trends of how music and licensing are evolving."

A veteran of music management and touring, Rockwood spent a good chunk of the ’90s working in the Austin area at companies like Direct Events and on shows with Willie Nelson before coming onboard at GSD&M. He’s also good buddies with Austin-based C3 Presents, which is just a few blocks down the street. Having one foot firmly in the local music scene allows Rockwood to celebrate the community of Austin whenever possible through his clients’ creative and the songs they license. That’s why local band Quiet Company was one of a recent trio of indie-rock groups he chose to feature in promos for the PGA Tour across broadcast partners like NBC, CBS and Golf Channel.

"[Executive creative director] Jay Russell has challenged the agency so that if we have an opportunity to put music in the spot, wouldn’t it be great if we could use this lens of Austin?" Rockwood says. "That’s where I have these long-term relationships in the past to go either to the band themselves, a licensing guy or even a booking agent and say, ‘Hey, can you send me this album, this track,’ and get access to music within minutes to put it against a rough cut of the spot. If I can keep doing that and do what we did for those bands, we’ll all be more successful."


VP/Music Director, Leo Burnett

Gabe McDonough knows to be prepared for an overly specific music search from clients looking for a song to embody their latest product. But his dual knowledge of musicians themselves came in handy when Leo Burnett client Delta Faucet approached him with a particularly challenging pitch. "They wanted someone who could perform a recognizable song that plays on the product . . . using only water to produce the sound," McDonough says.

As a former bassist of Chicago bands like the Boas, which opened for Wilco on its Yankee Hotel Foxtrot tour, McDonough has a few musicians in his back pocket for unique requests like this. Within hours, he connected with current Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche—a guy he’d heard "make music using 24 crickets."

At first, Kotche agreed to take on the challenge of re-creating the Four Tops’ "I’ll Be There" using pots, pans, toothbrushes and Delta sinks. But when McDonough came back with the opportunity to appear on-camera in the national TV ad, Kotche was "a little hesitant." "If it was anyone else, I don’t think I would have done it," Kotche says. "But I trust Gabe and knew he would protect me. I had to ask myself, ‘Will it be interesting?’ Yes. ‘Will I learn something from it?’ Yes, because it was actually really challenging. Plus, if I saw one of my peers up there I’d be like, ‘Shit, I should’ve done that!’"

The Chicago connections don’t end there. McDonough recently compiled tracks for a 78 RPM record to commemorate the 78th anniversary of Leo Burnett, with the aid of local label the Numero Group, which specializes in vintage soul. "Of course Leo Burnett is a huge global network, and we do great work all over the world. But being in Chicago, I’m really influenced by all the music here. When it’s right in front of you, you can’t help but incorporate it into your own work."

In his previous gig as a music supervisor at fellow Chicago shop DDB, McDonough helped break Santigold to the masses with a Bud Light Lime synch for her track "Creator." Though he wouldn’t mind seeing lightning strike twice at his current agency, McDonough’s just as amped about revisiting old classics for clients like Kellogg, recently tapped Sam & Dave’s "Hold On I’m Comin’" and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s "Up Around the Bend" for Raisin Bran spots.

"It can add a little cost, but there’s a lot of magic in those original tapes," he says. "The days of just doing a cover because it’s cheaper are not the motivations anymore. I hold those original sounds in high regard, especially as a guy who collects old records."


Managing Director of Global Music Production, mcgarrybowen

The average mid- to large-sized creative agency typically employs one or two in-house music supervisors, if they don’t outsource the work entirely. So why, then, does Dentsu’s mcgarrybowen have a whopping 13 people in its music department? Because Jerry Krenach, the agency’s managing director of global music production, believes an audio strategy should be a part of each one of its clients’ platforms, whether it’s a digital ad for United Airlines, a national TV campaign for JPMorgan Chase, a digital spot for Kraft Foods or a ringtone for Verizon.

Music can even help Krenach’s company win new business, as it did for Pizza Hut, which selected mcgarrybowen over incumbent the Martin Agency in early September based on the use of an original song created specifically for the agency’s pitch. As a result, Krenach is now looking for a 14th person to help round out the team. Several of the music supervisors at mcgarrybowen function almost as music leads for accounts like Verizon (Search Party veteran Stephanie Diaz Matos) and Reebok (Media Arts Lab/Apple vet Jarrett Mason). "We do act as a team, but we do have some senior music producers who essentially liaise with the creative department for us. On any given campaign, someone is usually front-lining that job, and there’s about three other people in supportive roles," Krenach says.

And because Krenach’s role is global, mcgarrybowen chairman/chief creative officer Gordon Bowen will be tasking him with identifying international music opportunities for the agency’s clients. "We have offices everywhere from London to China, and it’s important to make sure we are musically current in those markets as we are in the U.S.," Bowen says. "In a dream world, I want to get to a place where China is informing and inspiring the U.S. and London is inspiring Mexico, because music is the global language and it speaks to people in a powerful way—probably more universally than any other language."

A seasoned arranger and musician himself, Krenach has held stints with Lenny Pickett’s band on "Saturday Night Live," performed with Paul Schaffer’s outfit on "Late Night With David Letterman" and even played New York’s Carnegie Hall. Perhaps that’s why he sometimes gravitates toward orchestral fare, like tapping George Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" for a series of United spots, or licensing an obscure Phillip Glass song for a major Verizon campaign. But the agency has also helped pair Alicia Keys with Reebok, using her song "Girl on Fire," and a pre-Civil Wars Joy Williams with Oscar Mayer for an original jingle, so the playing field is often wide open when it comes to outside pitches.

"I like to be sent music for music’s sake," he says. "Not really to be predetermined or suggested what it would be best-suited for. I like everyone to do research and see what we’ve been up to and be familiar with our client roster and how we use music, of course. But so many times we’re looking for unexpected tracks and surprising tracks. Ultimately, we’re like anyone who listens to music—we want to discover something really special."