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Bert Marissen: “Music Is a Phenomenal Creative Force”

30/08/2022
Music & Sound
Los Angeles, USA
341
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TBWA\Chiat\Day LA’s creative director tells LBB’s Adam Bennett how connecting with music will always be a powerful tool in a brand’s repertoire, and why there’s nothing quite as powerful as nostalgia

Without music, creativity would not be the same. Whether it’s a rhythm and cadence provided in the background, or the transcendent emotions music can push to the foreground, so much of our creative history is linked to music and its unique ability to communicate directly with our senses. 

It’s that link which this interview series, supported by SoStereo and inspired by their What About the Music podcast, sets out to explore. Over the coming months, we’ll be speaking to high-profile industry figures about how music has influenced their relationship with their craft, and get their take on the process of marrying melody to creativity. 

Today, we speak to TBWA\Chiat\Day LA’s creative director Bert Marissen. In recent times, Bert’s remarkably innovative ‘Music in Colour’ campaign for BEHR Paint has afforded the CD a fascinating insight into the relationship between music and creativity - and just why it’s so powerful. Here, he reflects on his early days performing music as a House DJ, why Running Up That Hill became the astonishing ‘breakout’ hit of 2022, and how music continues to inform his own creativity… 


LBB> Bert, let’s start by winding the clock back. What kind of kid were you growing up, and what kind of role did music play in your childhood? 

Bert> When I was in elementary school, I was really into musicals. I had an early passion for that performative side of music, which I found to be really fun and expressive. But in high school music started taking on a bigger role, and in college I became a house DJ where I was influenced a lot by music - and that’s around the same time that I started studying advertising. So, for me, there has always been a kind of convergence between ads and music. 

Music is such a phenomenal creative force, especially from the perspective of DJing, of course. When I come up with ideas today, I find myself using a lot of the same creative tools as I did when I was a DJ in order to fuel that creativity. 


LBB> It’s interesting that, whether it be musical theatre or DJing, there’s such a strong link between your experience with music and performance. Do you think that has had any effect on your approach to music today? 

Bert> Yeah. In advertising there’s always enormous value in entertaining people, and I think music is something that people tend to remember about ads which they enjoyed. I don’t believe that’s a coincidence. 

For example, one of my favourite ever ads is for Adidas Originals, where they essentially remake Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. Had it not been for that choice of music, you just wouldn’t have had anything like the same ad at the end of it. 


Above: Director Terence Neale’s work with Adidas Originals offers a fresh and intense take on Frank Sinatra’s iconic ‘My Way’. 


There are some brands which instinctively get the importance of music and how it communicates to their own values. Bacardi is another which springs to mind, in terms of entertaining their audience. On the other hand, brands who neglect music are always going to be less likely to connect with people. It is a performance, and performers who don’t connect are, unfortunately, often forgotten. 


LBB> Do you think brands always need to keep music front-of-mind, as a rule of thumb? 

Bert> I’ve always believed in putting the idea first. So, in an ad, music’s role is to serve or enhance that idea - and it’s undoubtedly important in doing so. Being honest, there are instances where a stock track can perform that function… but neglecting music is always going to be a missed opportunity. 

The TBWA network’s Media Arts Lab has an incredible philosophy around music, I believe. They have an in-house music team who get involved right at the start of creating an ad. You can see the benefits of that approach through all of their work with Apple. It always tends to be up-and-coming tracks that they pick - not for name recognition, but because they work so beautifully with the creative execution. That’s a great example of what I’m talking about. 


Above: Media Arts Lab, as part of the TBWA network, has created some of the industry’s most beloved campaigns in recent years for Apple. 


LBB> On that point, do you think that brands who can connect people to new music are rewarded for doing so? Are audiences likely to think positively towards brands who introduce them to new stuff which they love? 

Bert> I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. It’s a way of being ahead of the game and ahead of culture - if you can find an up-and-coming artist who you truly believe in and can tie your brand to that, that’s fantastic. And, frankly, it’s also a great way of utilising authentic music in a budget-friendly way, given you won’t be paying for global superstars. If you’re smart about it, it’s an opportunity to earn a meaningful connection with an audience, for sure. 


LBB> And so, as creative director at TBWA\Chiat\Day, what kind of role does music play in your day-to-day? 

Bert> It’s an interesting time to ask that question, given that we’ve just been working on a campaign based around music. It’s called Music in Colour for BEHR Paint, and as a starting point it involved us figuring out how millennials connect with music. Specifically, we were looking to explore the links between music and colour through the phenomenon of chromesthesia (where certain people are able to visibly see colour in music and melodies), and connect that to paint. 

That whole process threw up some really interesting insights around music. One example, and this is actually related to the point we were just talking about, is how passionate the connections between more niche artists and their fans are. It’s very easy to look at pop culture and make assumptions about how beloved certain bands and artists are, but we found that less-explored genres like black metal and jazz threw up really passionate and authentic connections. The hook of our campaign, for which we actually worked with Spotify, was that we’d connect a colour to every song on that platform based on an algorithm developed based on the insights of artists with chromesthesia. So you could see the colour of your favourite song - whatever it may be and whoever it might be performed by - and buy that colour from BEHR Paint to paint your walls. It’s profoundly personal, and it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without that connection people have with music. 


Above: Inspired by Katy Perry’s ability to see music in colour (a condition known as chromesthesia), Music in Colour became Spotify’s most successful brand partnership ever. 


LBB> That’s fantastic - and really fascinating in terms of how people connect with music in the age of streaming. Speaking of Spotify, one finding in their recent Generation Next report was that 70% of Gen Z listeners said that they “felt they were born in the wrong era” when it came to music. Does that surprise you at all? 

Bert> Wow, that does seem surprisingly high. But then, just look at what’s happened with Kate Bush and Stranger Things this year. That’s a hugely nostalgic 80s song, but it’s got this enormous appeal amongst people who weren’t alive in the 80s! 

I was recently talking to my partner about this, and we were saying that the whole phenomenon made us realise how much incredible music there must be from the 60s and 70s which we’d never heard but was waiting to be discovered, or rather re-discovered. And, again, coming back to what we were saying earlier, imagine how cool it would be for a brand like Spotify - or anyone else - to help introduce us to that treasure trove of classics. 


Above: The use of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ in season four of Netflix’s Stranger Things made the 1985 classic the surprising soundtrack of 2022.


But it’s also complicated. Before Stranger Things happened, you’d have probably had a hard time convincing a brand to go with ‘Running Up That Hill’ as a music choice. The data would have said that it was popular with people born in the 50s and 60s, but younger audiences had no recognition of it. That’s a tough sell, depending on the brand. But a TV show like Stranger Things went with it, and now it’s a cultural phenomenon amongst young people. Creatives need to convince brands of how powerful nostalgia can be, in order for them to benefit from the rewards. 


LBB> That’s a really interesting point. More broadly, is there anything about the way the industry works with music today which frustrates you? 

Bert> It’s a good question because music, whilst so powerful, can be tricky when it comes to negotiation. When you find a song you know will work perfectly, it can get expensive quickly because of the need to properly find and pay everyone who was involved. 

It’s absolutely correct that everyone gets what they have earned, but it can often be one of the toughest parts of developing a campaign because of how knotty the process is. If there were some kind of system which improved on that - a subscription model or something - I think a lot of people would find that very appealing. 


LBB> And, on a final note, what are you listening to at the moment? 

Bert> I’ll regularly listen to new stuff, mainly using Spotify’s Discover Weekly which is a great tool for introducing new artists. But something I have found myself coming back to is movie soundtracks. I’ve recently been reading through the Dune novels and I have to say that having the recent movie’s soundtrack on in the background to that is incredible.  


Above: The legendary Hans Zimmer composed the soundtrack to 2021’s adaptation of Dune.


On a similar note, I really find that soundtracks and house music can help boost my creativity when I need to concentrate. I can’t quite explain why, but they somehow help me to close off my surrounding environment and focus my attention on a single thought or task. In the era of remote working, that’s been priceless.

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