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Joy Howard, Sonos' Marketing Chief, on Tech Events and Not Trying So Hard

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Sonos commercial 2016: You're Better Than This

"I think the most awesome thing that's happening in marketing is less marketing." Joy Howard, head of marketing at Sonos, thinks companies need to relax with the pitch.

Advertising and marketing are not industries known for having big hearts, though their existence is predicated on the audience offering up its -- a first step towards opening the wallet, too.

Few succeed at the first part of the equation, and for that reason, campaigns that show even an oblique interest in, and understanding of, the lives of the human beings they target tend to stick out. (At the time of this writing, none could be recalled by this reporter or by several others canvassed.) Sonos' most recent campaign, "You're Better Than This," hits this elusive target by being realistic.

The person behind the concept is Joy Howard who, while vp of marketing for Patagonia, told a magazine dedicated to advertising that the form was "dead last" on her list of priorities for the company, which had just tried to convince its customers to fix their clothes instead of buying new ones. She spent some formative years in Seely, a "like, not that great" band (they were, at least, good enough to garner a signing to PJ Harvey's label at the time), which opened for Fugazi and toured and reveled in the fertile post-rock, pre-implosion scene of the latter '90s, typified by bands like The Sea and Cake and Tortoise (a member of which, John McEntire, produced Seely's first record).

After seeing Howard interview Pusha T for a tech-slick announcement several months ago, Billboard visited Howard at the Sonos store in lower Manhattan, listened to Awesome Snakes, and chatted about about that Sonos event, the state of marketing, why "You're Better Than This" works so well, and why advertising generally doesn't.

Billboard: I wanted to talk to you because I thought what Sonos was doing with this most recent campaign was really interesting.

Joy Howard, Chief Marketing Officer, Sonos: I appreciate you saying that, and I appreciate you giving me the chance to talk to you since I didn't talk to you after [Sonos' launch event with Spotify and Amazon], which was like, kind of uncomfortable and embarrassing for me for all the reasons that you articulated in your piece [laughs].

Did I shit on it a little bit?

You kind of did… and I felt a little affinity with what you were saying.

I've been to a lot of those tech activations, whatever you want to call them, and I always poke them a little, because there's always something to make fun of. They're always prim and everything is fantastic and it rarely actually is.

Well you know actually I felt uncomfortable throughout the whole thing mostly because I've never done it before and it was a kind of awkward thing to do... and then I saw the Google one, did you watch that one?

Oh yeah, of course. You expect them to like run out like Tony Robbins, "boom!" T-shirt guns!

Like Steve Ballmer!

So when you were developing this most recent campaign, did you get a lot of push back? Was there… let me rephrase that. How hard was it to convince people?

It was hard to develop….it was hard to get it developed. I mean it wasn't hard to get it through, because Sonos has a really, amazingly awesome leadership team who trusts each other and believe in each other. We ask each other questions, but we don't get in each other's shit. 

So from the start, from the moment I walked in, and [Sonos CEO] John McFarlane was like "What do you want to do? Do it."

So part of the strategy worked. When I tried to develop the creative, that was probably the hardest part, I think because -- not because people were reluctant but it's just so different from what an agency would normally do.

Then the snowball was rolling down the mountain.

The snowball was rolling and then it just took off, and we just did as many of them as we could afford to license the music for you. 

Licensing music for ads is really hard, it's really terrible -- that is the number one reason why I support the Open Music Initiative. Seriously. I care about what they're trying to achieve, but I wanna make it easier to buy music and use music. It's really… it's terrible. 

You mean just the individual negotiations or just the actual securing the mechanicals, or...

The whole process. There's a million different people to talk to, then you think you've got it in the bag... then so-and-so pops up with "wait a minute what about this." It could be so much simpler. 

I was thinking the other night about how much money have we not paid artists, because we could not figure out how to actually transact it. If you think about how hard it is, especially, I mean, a lot of artists that we'd like to work with are not huge, they're not loaded and that money would be like a small house!

But we just ran out of time, trying to figure out who owned what and getting someone to return a call. And you never know if it's actually even getting to the artist or not, even the ask... and a lot of money is spent in advertising and media. A lot. Imagine it just flowing a bit more in the direction of the artist, I think it would make a big difference and it would make the quality of ad communication much better. 

You mean creatively?

Half the time, music is the afterthought in the creative process, it's the very last thing that's added.

I guess you specifically don't have that luxury, considering the company you work for.

There's one legend in the music industry who I worked with recently, and who shall go unnamed, but who refuses to see anything without the final music on it. It's the most baller thing I've ever heard of, I've never heard of that before. "He wants to see the final cut with the final music?" I thought man, right on. If you're a music brand that's how it should be, it should start with the music first.

Not some "give me a f---ing Beach House vibe!" or whatever.

Or, just don't give a click track -- I mean, no one would give me a click track [laughs] -- but sometimes people would cut the whole film and they'll just have a click track with it and then they'll say okay let's overlay this music and then let's overlay that music, let's try this. The point is, if the music is not that integral to the idea, than it's not gonna be that great, or you haven't thought deeply enough about it.

I know someone who works at a giant media marketing company, like an evil corporation from a sitcom.

Like Skynet.

Exactly, it's like Mr. Robot, literally. This friend says it's exactly how you think it would be -- cold.

First of all, there's just too much stuff that people are doing. It doesn't really mean anything to anybody... you have to have a real reason to do something, otherwise nothing good is gonna come of it. Just selling stuff is not enough of a reason. Everybody is trying to sell something, so if all you're trying to do is sell stuff you don't really believe in, and you have a weak idea on top of that, and you don't wanna take a risk... it won't be good. and I've been a part of experiences like that, and I've worked really hard to get away from that. I think the most awesome thing that's happening in marketing is less marketing. 


I see a huge trend which is such a relief, a trend towards straight-talk. Like, "just tell me straight what it is that you want and what you're about, reflect it in your actions and who you are and make me want to listen."