How Cannes Lions Will Put Music Back in the Spotlight in 2016

Cannes Lions International Festival
Francois G. Durand/Getty Images

Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity on June 27, 2015 in Cannes, France. 

In 1971, Coca-Cola and McCann's Bill Backer taught the world to sing in perfect harmony. Today, George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" flies the friendly skies alongside United Airlines more than 75 years after the composer's death. And Taylor Swift, who's been called "the world's most marketable artist," promotes Diet Coke as the choice of a new generation.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famously called music "the universal language of mankind," and it has long played a formative but arguably underappreciated role in advertising.

In an era of multimedia activations and long-form sponsored content, music and marketing are so intertwined that seeing pop stars from Selena Gomez and Pharrell Williams to and Marilyn Manson has become commonplace at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

The Lions' October decision to replace its Branded Content & Entertainment Lions with a more expansive Entertainment Lions program and a separate Music category therefore feels like a natural step forward.

"It's been a long time coming -- and not in a bad way," said Joshua Rabinowitz, evp and director of music for Grey Group.

The Cannes Lions organization cited the "talented entertainers who have the power to connect directly with consumers" in explaining its decision.

Simon Cooke, director of awards for the Lions Festivals, told Adweek, "In recent years, we've seen a great deal of work where music plays a fundamental role sitting at the core of the creative." He said, "We all know that music has the power to enhance or complement a brand's message and bring storytelling to life. The new Entertainment Lion for Music will celebrate this as well as shine a spotlight on music in brand partnerships, technology, craft and live experiences, and hero the brand work that is driving the music industry forward."

Cannes veteran Rabinowitz, who has led Grey's music department for more than a decade, will serve as president of the music jury at this summer's 63rd annual Cannes Lions festival. He said the time has come for the marketing world to formally recognize the role music plays in the creative process.

"For me, as a music geek watching these awards shows, the best kinds of ads, generally speaking, have been seeded by a music idea first," he said, citing Chipotle's "Scarecrow," Honda's "Impossible Dream" and McCann Melbourne's ongoing "Dumb Ways to Die" project. And the list grows longer every day. Wieden + Kennedy's most recent work for Southern Comfort, for instance, was a full music video for the Detroit Grand Pubahs' "ShottaSoCo" starring Danny McBride.

"There will be a wide swath of categories" in the Music Lions, which will incorporate elements of past Radio, Cyber and Film competitions, Rabinowitz said. "It's not purely the craft of using music in an ad. From branded content to music videos, it's very expansive. The Grand Prix will go to a project that utilizes music in a really important, interesting way."

Rabinowitz also hopes the new Lions will reinforce the importance of agencies' internal music departments.

"Our team is a much bigger part of the ideation process than we were 10 years ago when not everyone embraced music," he said. "We're integrated into all the work."

And the team's responsibilities go far beyond choosing the sounds that go in ads. "Since there's so much negotiation going on with existing music, you need people who speak the language and have distinctive, quality relationships with publishers, record labels, managers, lawyers and other third parties," Rabinowitz said. "It's a complex aspect [of the process]."

The role of music director is "an all-encompassing job in which you use your right brain as much as your left brain," Rabinowitz said. "It's really about working with all your collaborators, fighting for great tracks and sounds and helping people understand how the creative always drives things."

So, what sort of artists does a self-described music geek like Rabinowitz see pushing the boundaries of creativity today?

"I hate to admit it, but Justin Bieber's production is amazing," he said. "To me, it's super pop, but it's still kind of deep." He also named albums by Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky as standouts from 2015. Sounds like a good topic of discussion for Cannes Lions 2016.

This article was first published by Adweek.