The Super Bowl Synch Master: UMPG's Tom Eaton Is Finalizing Ads 3 Days Before Kick-Off

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Coldplay, Beyonce and Bruno Mars perform during the Pepsi Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show at Levi's Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California.  

The SVP of music and advertising will work up until and through game time.

After Super Bowl Sunday, Tom Eaton, it seems, will need a long vacation. Since mid-November, the SVP of music for advertising for Universal Music Publishing Group and his New York based team have been working increasingly more intensely with music supervisors and agencies on finding the perfect music from their catalog of nearly 3.5 million songs to accompany ads for this year's big game—the most watched (114 million viewers last year) and expensive (expected to be more than $5 million per 30 seconds) broadcast television event of the year.

"The last couple of weeks have been insane— around the clock, lots of calls on weekends," says Eaton who has worked at UMPG for the past nineteen years. "It seems this year the process was pushed back a little bit more than normal. In January we were still discovering agencies and brands that were going to be advertising in the Super Bowl. And honestly, I am still locking in Super Bowl commercials today."

Today means Thursday, three days before the kick-off on Sunday and Eaton says he won't actually know for sure which of the many synchs his team worked on have made it until the game time. Then he, a die-hard Patriots fan, will sits by the TV Shazaming every commercial and tallying up what made the broadcast. Billboard spoke with Eaton to learn more how Super Bowl synch sausages are made, some of this hotter placements (Justin Bieber, Imagine Dragons, Rick Astley, Steppenwolf), and how to deal with bathroom breaks.

Billboard: Is it just insane right now?
Tom Eaton: It really is. The last couple of weeks, have been a very insane time. It's around the clock, lots of calls on the weekends.

When do you start working on Super Bowl campaigns?
We tend to start reaching out in mid-to-late November just to try and get a feel for which of our agency partners are aware of Super Bowl ads they might be working on.  As December rolls around, the picture becomes a little clearer. This year it seemed the process was pushed back a little bit more than normal. In January we were still discovering agencies and brands that were going to be advertising in the Super Bowl. Honestly I am still locking in Super Bowl Commercials today.

You're kidding -- three days out? Is that unprecedented?
Every year we'll have a few commercials here and there that really push up against the deadline. In the past it was the Tuesday before the Super Bowl when just about everything was done. This year seems a bit atypical in that even last week we were still doing music searches mining our catalog for song ideas.

Who do you interface with at the agencies?
Each ad agency works differently. Some have in-house music producers, others will hire outside music supervisors and in a few situations we are in direct contact with brands.

Once you get an idea of the project and the type of music they want is it like an RFP [request for proposal] process with publishers submitting music?
We're experts here on really mining our catalog and figuring out what they need. We do our best to nail it in the first round.

After you submit songs what's the process?
It varies from project to project and depending on how much time there is, but we're always open to feedback. Agencies will come back to us and let us know what's working and what's not working. If they come back to us two, three, four, five times looking for song ideas, we'll continue to dive into our catalog.

Do you ever have to remix or re-cut songs?
Sometimes they will come to us and they'll want to do a re-record of the song or they might want the artist to get involved to change a bit of the song, maybe they want to look at lyric changes, every time is really a different situation.

Courtesy of Tom Eaton
Tom Eaton

What happens after a song is selected?
We'll start the negotiation process regarding the terms they are looking for and the fees we believe our fair, both to our songwriters as well as to the ad agency and try to drill down.

So half your job is creative and the other half is negotiating rates? They seem like very different skill sets.
We all really can do both as far as being creatively involved in choosing songs as well as negotiating license terms. We also have a team that we work closely with in Los Angeles that handle the long form licenses once we get to that point.

Do fees vary by type of song?
Our classic legacy songs demand a much higher fee than perhaps a brand new song that you've never heard before but has the opportunity to launch on a massive platform such as the Super Bowl.

Are there any trends with the kinds of music vein used?
This year we're about split 50-50 on classic catalog songs versus contemporary songs from the last year or two.

Do you get the privilege of calling up an artist and saying, 'Hey, guess what....
We go through our approval parties, but sometimes we have direct relationships with the artist. For instance, I don't know if you've had a chance to see the Mercedes commercial that uses the Steppenwolf classic song "Born to Be Wild," but after we landed that song and the entire deal was done and finalized I had he honor of emailing Mars Bonfire the writer of the song and member of Steppenwolf and saying, "Congratulations, it happened!" He was thrilled.  We're really lucky in what we do in that we often get to interact with our childhood idols.

Is it like winning the lottery? What is a songwriter likely to earn from a Super Bowl spot?
The fees are always significant for songs that are in the Super Bowl, but the terms vary so much from brand to brand, that it's really difficult to make any sort of statement on fees. Some brands might only run the commercial one time on TV during the Super Bowl and then have extended use online; other brands might want to run it on TV for a year as well as online, so it's really a case by case situation,. 

Of the commercials you can talk about now, what are you most looking forward to?
I'll be fascinated to watch the numbers for the Imagine Dragons brand new song "Believer" which was just released as a single this week. It's the soundtrack to the new Nintendo commercial, which has never run a spot during the Super Bowl. The song is an amazing accompaniment to the commercial and I'm really interested to see streaming numbers on Monday and sales next week.

What can you tell us about the Bieber ad?
The Justin Bieber spot is fantastic. He's actually featured as an actor in a T-Mobile commercial and they brought him in as talent and he nailed it. His performance is funny. And the song of his that is used in the spot is called "Children," they just used the instrumental  that perfectly compliments the humor of the spot. I think it's one of those spots where Justin will benefit immensely from its placement in the super bowl.

Any others?
I mentioned the "Born to Be Wild" spot for Mercedes, where they actually did an homage to Easy Rider and brought the Coen Brothers in to direct the spot. Peter Fonda is actually in it. And "Born to be Wild," which was actually one of the first songs to be licensed in a movie in one of the more iconic scenes ever, is featured throughout the commercial.

Also Go Daddy is back this year in the super bowl in a hilarious spot using Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up."

What have been some of your catalog Super Bowl successes?
Last year a tremendous placement of the song 'Whatta Man' performed by Salt-N-Pepa in a Hyundai commercial that breathed new life into that song and it soon was licensed again for a Chase Bank commercial, followed by another for Walmart. The exposure a song receives in the Super Bowl is invaluable by reminding an older demo of a popular song from their youth, as well as introducing a whole new generation to a classic hit.  Another was the incredible spike in streaming that occurred for our song “Girl From Ipanema” after Gisele Bundchen walked onstage during the opening ceremony of last summer's Olympics. Spotify reported a 1,200% rise in daily streams.

Does the Super Bowl make up a certain percentage of your revenue? It seems like it's a quarter of your year's work starting in November and finishing in February?
While landing songs in the Super Bowl is incredibly important, it's not that large of a percentage of our year. We're lucky in that we have an amazing song catalog and we work very closely with ad agencies throughout the year and have strong placements in many different types of spots, whether it's the Grammys which are coming up the week after the Super Bowl or Last year's Olympics in which we had the most placements.

Do you find yourself coming up against the same major publishers in competition for the same spots? Like are you continually running into Warner-Chappell in the hallway or something?
There are only a few major publishers out there who have deep song catalogs like ours, but I'm biased I feel that we have the best catalog there is.

What will watching the game be like?
Some synchs perhaps won't be confirmed yet so we're watching the game and I've got the Shazam app on my phone up ready to go just in case they've buried a song in the background or whatever.

Are you able to watch the game?
It's tough and it's even tougher this year because I'm a die-hard New England Patriots fan.

It's a 3-4 hour experience, will you be able to take a bathroom break?
Thank God we can hit pause.

During the game or the commercials?
They're both very important to me.

Super Bowl 51